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ALVARADO: We Must Never Forget The Importance Of Being Together

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Montse Alvarado Contributor
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Photos of Palm Sunday worship services back at full capacity and communities singing together for the first time in two years are flooding social media and drawing out sighs of relief and gratitude.

While we embrace these moments, we should not forget how we got here and how many people suffered as underreported casualties of the lockdowns.

March 2022 marked two years since a pandemic was declared, launching a governmental response of mask, capacity and eventually vaccine mandates that impacted the lives of billions around the world. At home in the U.S., the approach to “stop the spread” took an ugly and anti-religious turn. (GEARY: With The Pandemic Coming To An End, We Should Reflect On Our Religious Liberty)

Recognizing they we initially knew little about this new virus, most houses of worship decided to close of their own volition. But once we knew more, most houses of worship had to fight hard, through advocacy and litigation, to reopen and serve the communities they exist to sustain.

Some churches cited the desire to help parishioners mourn as a reason for their urgency to return to some form of worship. Others noted the essential nature of their sacraments. One reason for reopening stood out to me the most: the need to continue hosting Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The in-person accountability and routine of those meetings is key to living sober — one day at a time.

Tragically, alcohol-related deaths saw an unprecedented 25% jump in 2020 — with the largest increase affecting adults aged 35-44. One of the first “lockdown” cases to move through the courts was in New Mexico, where liquor stores were essential and could stay open, but the church had to stop its AA meetings and Zoom or desist.

The list continues with an increase in suicide rates for young girls, where 26% of young girls were more likely to attempt or commit suicide for various reasons related to the lockdowns, and domestic violence, now often called intimate partner violence, calls increased 8.1%.

The known losses are devastating, and we will never know how many went unreported.

These avoidable consequences remind us to never forget the human element in these fights. Religious worship and religious freedom embody that fundamental principle in our legal system. Courts and our Constitution are supposed to protect people, even in emergencies — they should not simply defer to governments that prioritize other values over the faith that sustains so many of us.

The pandemic religious liberty cases are a perfect example of this important balance that we would be remiss to forget.

Leading in the unequal treatment of religious communities was then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo who decided to draw lines around the Jewish communities in New York to impose restrictions on gathering and worship. Other states and municipalities relaxed the rules around what they viewed as important industries like casinos in Nevada, leaving religion behind.

But the truth will get out. Nine months into the pandemic, the Supreme Court shifted away from this deference and said that New York’s restrictions could only be permissible if New York offered proof that it actually needed to restrict worship. The government failed to provide this proof, and the courts changed course.

It turned out the governments could not show that religious worship was more dangerous than the other activities they had favored. (RELATED: SCHIFFREN: As Freedom Wanes, The Passover Story Offers An Important Warning)

Proof that the restrictions were necessary, and based on public health claims, was hard to come by and showed no evidence that religious worship or gathering was more dangerous than any of the many other allowed functions and activities.

A 2021 poll of American opinions on religious freedom, the Religious Freedom Index, showed that majorities of Americans believe that worship and funerals at houses of worship should be considered essential activities in a pandemic. And relevant to the ongoing battles in the courts today, more respondents supported religious exemptions to vaccine mandates in the workplace than opposed them, with respondents who had religious coworkers indicating even more support for religious exemptions.

Holding the government accountable — forcing those who would restrict religion to bear the burden of proof — was a lesson for Americans and the courts.

Whether you’re celebrating Passover, Easter Triduum, or Ramadan, don’t forget what was lost during our COVID-19 response, and don’t forget how important religious freedom has been in bringing it back.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated. 

Montse Alvarado is the executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and host of EWTN’s News in Depth.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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