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When it comes to COVID caution, Curtis Freeman is on our side. Which is a little unexpected, because he’s not a Unitarian Universalist or a member of the United Church of Christ or an Episcopalian. He’s an ordained Baptist minister and a research professor at Duke University Divinity School.

That didn’t inspire confidence. Baptists, especially Southern Baptists, tend to be rigid, demonstratively devout, and doctrinarian to a fault. But not all Baptists feel the same. The BJC — the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty — is strongly in favor of church/state separation and has worked with secular groups to achieve that goal. Freeman falls in that camp, if this brief article of his in North Carolina’s News & Record is anything to go by.

Religious liberty, Freeman argues, is a right, but it shouldn’t be a cudgel.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the religious liberty of all Americans. … Yet, liberty is not license. That point seems lost on the “Return America” protesters and in the recent ruling by the U.S. District Court for Eastern North Carolina. Churches in the state are now permitted to open their doors despite the governor’s warning that they risk spreading the coronavirus.

No bueno, says Freeman, who wants people to “exercise caution, and to ensure the reopening of religious services [goes] according to safety protocols.” That doesn’t impinge on anyone’s rights. Religious liberty, Freeman points out, has always had its limits.

For example, the right of parents to practice a faith that refuses medical care in favor of divine healing does not unconditionally extend to their minor children. Polygamous marriages are not legal nor are interracial unions illegal, religious traditions notwithstanding. These cases serve as reminders that religious liberty in American society always has been subject to regulation.

It follows that

The First Amendment ensures religious groups with the freedom of peaceable assembly, but because church gatherings across the country have been identified as significant sources for community transmission of the coronavirus it is not unreasonable for the governor to act in the interest of public safety.

The best part:

The “Return America” protesters betray a fundamental misunderstanding of religious liberty in still another way. They presume that their right to worship the way they choose is greater than their responsibility to love their neighbors. Following a reasonable plan for public safety is not a violation of religious liberty. It is a way of loving our neighbors.

At the recent “Return America” protests in Raleigh, participants did not observe social distancing guidelines nor did they wear protective masks. It is understandable to question whether these same people will abide by recommendations for safe indoor gatherings. Religious liberty as put forth in the First Amendment is a shield for protecting all, not a sword for injuring others.

Not a sword for injuring others. I like that. Read it all.

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