Pandemic, Disability, and Worship Practices: What Next?
The debates around in-person worship services callously neglect worshippers with disabilities
By Courtney Wilder|December 14, 2020
Out of necessity, religious services in 2020 have been transformed. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many U.S. congregations have offered online access to worship services since March or April of 2020, often in lieu of in-person gatherings. Worship spaces are being used in new ways, and services have been adapted and made accessible to participants who remain at home. This has proven to be an unexpected benefit to disabled participants. Naomi Lawson Jacobs argues that the COVID-19 pandemic has offered unprecedented access to church for many disabled people: “The Church is likely to learn a great deal from the current crisis about making services more accessible to those who can’t easily reach them. If this rethinking continues — and if churches don’t just turn off the live stream and go back to forgetting the always isolated older and disabled members after this crisis is over — then these changes may allow disabled people to be more fully included in churches in the long term.” This is a promising opportunity for religious communities to embrace their disabled members and to enrich their congregational life.
However, congregations are not uniformly attuned to the disproportionate dangers of COVID-19 for disabled people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions on gathering in person have not sat well with many, and some have sought help from the courts. For example, on May 29, 2020 the Supreme Court ruled in South Bay United Pentecostal Church et al. v. Gavin Newsom that California’s restrictions on in-person gatherings did not violate religious freedom; Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”
More recent was the November 25, 2020 Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo decision. The diocese and a Brooklyn synagogue, Agudath Israel of America, successfully appealed to the Supreme Court to prevent the enforcement of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “very severe restrictions on attendance at religious services in areas classified as ‘red’ or ‘orange’ zones.” These zone classifications reflect the intensity of COVID-19 cases in the area, and affected congregations in the red and orange zones were limited to 10 and 25 participants per in-person worship service, respectively. The Supreme Court issued a similar ruling on December 3, 2020, reversing a California District Court ruling that upheld restrictions on California houses of worship.
The majority opinion in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, upheld by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, granted the congregations “relief pending appellate review,” partly on the grounds that the restrictions targeted ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. This claim reflects ongoing spikes in COVID-19 cases in ultra-Orthodox areas, perhaps driven by religious practices that entail gathering in groups. The congregations’ First Amendment freedoms were unfairly restricted, the majority ruled, because remote attendance is not an adequate replacement for in-person participation. The ruling argued that there was no evidence that the applicants’ services had resulted in the spread of COVID-19. Justice Gorsuch argued in a concurring opinion that if “laundry and liquor, travel and tools” are essential, so are worship services.
Chief Justice Roberts dissented, as did Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, arguing that scientific and medical experts had demonstrated that close contact, and particularly talking, singing, coughing, and breathing while in close contact, were risky and that public health concerns ought to be taken into account. Justice Sotomayor argued in a separate dissenting opinion that far from violating religious rights, in this case “… New York treats houses of worship far more favorably than their secular comparators.” She also argued that Orthodox Jews were not being targeted by the restrictions.
Religious organizations are already exempt from key legal protections for disabled people, including many aspects of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The push to resume large, in-person religious services, which is by no means limited to Pentecostal, Roman Catholic or Jewish congregations, reveals that many congregations have chosen not to prioritize the health of the community, and particularly the health of disabled people. Despite the widespread identification of in-person worship services (along with weddings and funerals) as so-called “super spreader” events, where participants are routinely exposed to and infected with COVID-19, people continue to spread the virus through their communities as a result of gathering for religious events. The Supreme Court rulings are only two examples of many where religious communities, either through defiance of health ordinances or by challenging them through legal means, have actively worked to gather in person despite overwhelming evidence that this is dangerous.
The implications of this pursuit are grim. COVID-19 disproportionately endangers disabled people. This is because disabled people may be immune-compromised or have underlying health conditions, because they are less likely to have access to the healthcare they need to survive, and because when medical resources are scarce, disabled people are regarded as lower-priority than non-disabled people. The Center for Public Representation argues in its recently updated Evaluation Framework for Crisis Standard of Care Plans, “Many plans reference quality of life indirectly by stating that providers should consider the existence of underlying disabilities that play no role in survival probability...” Because disabled people are widely seen as having lower quality of life, when medical care is rationed, non-disabled people are often prioritized. COVID-19 care thus may be withheld from disabled people even when their disabilities have no bearing on projected chances of survival.
This practice violates religious tenets that uphold the value of human life and reflects both prejudice and ignorance. The perception that disabled lives are less worth living than non-disabled lives is profoundly untrue. Bioethicist Joseph Stramando observes, “Of course, there is a significant body of empirical evidence showing that there is a substantial gap between a disabled person’s self-assessment and how their quality of life is judged by folks that have never experienced their disability. Some prominent bioethicists even refer to this as the ‘disability paradox.’ To me, there is little paradoxical about disabled people valuing their own life more than it is valued by non-disabled people making judgments based on stereotype and stigma.”
Certainly, religious communities are not alone in disregarding the needs of disabled people, and the goal of in-person worship is not to threaten the lives of disabled people. Nor are religious communities the only place where COVID-19 is spreading. But religious communities have a unique opportunity to course-correct with their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially important given the increasing number of “long-haul” COVID patients, whose new normal will include impairment and disability. And as Jacobs argues, ongoing access to congregational life during and after the pandemic could be transformative for disabled people’s religious participation. This is important in part because one possible result would be to disrupt the stereotypes and stigmas that Stromando identifies as the basis for unjust withholding of medical care, access to the community, and other resources from disabled people. Religious practices and beliefs have significant impact on the broader world; in order for life-affirming constructs of disability to gain acceptance by means of religious influence, congregations must first be willing to regard the lives of disabled people in their communities as urgently in need of protection. This may mean religious communities have a moral obligation to forego in-person worship and instead to strengthen newly-developed modes of access to religious life.
 590 U. S. 1 (2020)
 592 U. S. 1 (2020)
Photo: Minnesota disability rights activist Paula Fox Z"L using an adjustable Torah reading table. (Times of Israel)
Sightings is edited by Daniel Owings, a PhD Candidate in Theology at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.