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Poll shows partisan split over virus-era religious freedom

NEW YORK (AP) — As the nation’s houses of worship weigh how and when to resume in-person gatherings while coronavirus stay-at-home orders ease in some areas, a new poll points to a partisan divide over whether restricting those services violates religious freedom.

Questions about whether states and localities could restrict religious gatherings to protect public health during the pandemic while permitting other secular activities have swirled for weeks and resulted in more than a dozen legal challenges that touch on freedom to worship.

President Donald Trump’s administration has sided with two churches contesting their areas’ pandemic-related limits on in-person and drive-in services — a stance that appeals to his conservative base, according to the new poll by The University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The poll found Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say prohibiting in-person services during the coronavirus outbreak violates religious freedom, 49% to 21%.

A majority of Democrats, 58%, say they think in-person religious services should not be allowed at all during the pandemic, compared with 34% of Republicans who say the same. Among Republicans, most of the remainder — 48% — think they should be allowed with restrictions, while 15% think they should be allowed without restrictions. Just 5% of Democrats favor unrestricted in-person worship, and 38% think it should be permitted with restrictions.

Caught between the poles of the debate are Americans like Stanley Maslowski, 83, a retired Catholic priest in St. Paul, Minn., and an independent who voted for Trump in 2016 but is undecided this year. Maslowski was of two minds about a court challenge by Kentucky churches that successfully exempted in-person religious services from the temporary gathering ban issued by that state’s Democratic governor.

“On the one hand, I think it restricts religious freedom,” Maslowski said of the Kentucky ban. “On the other hand, I’m not sure if some of that restriction is warranted because of the severity of the contagious virus. It’s a whole new situation.”

The unprecedented circumstance of a highly contagious virus whose spread was traced back, in some regions, to religious gatherings prompted most leaders across faiths to suspend in-person worship during the early weeks of the pandemic. But it wasn’t long before worship restrictions prompted legal skirmishes from Kansas to California, with several high-profile cases championed by conservative legal nonprofits that have allied with the Trump administration’s past elevation of religious liberty.

One of those conservative nonprofits, the First Liberty Institute, spearheaded a Tuesday letter asking federal lawmakers to extend liability protections from coronavirus-related negligence lawsuits to religious organizations in their next coronavirus relief legislation.

Shielding houses of worship from potential legal liability would “reassure ministries that voluntarily closed that they can reopen in order to resume serving their communities,” the First Liberty-led letter states.

Among the hundreds of faith leaders signing the letter were several conservative evangelical Christian supporters of Trump, including Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, and Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the president of the Coalition for Jewish Values.

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