So imagine this: You have to register to go to church. They need your name and phone number first, and despite following all government mandates regarding keeping a safe distance from one another (actually blocking off more than half of available pew space), providing face coverings and encouraging some in the congregation not to attend, only a certain number (low number) are allowed by law to participate. You don’t have to imagine it, it’s happening in churches across Maine today.
Various denominations have come up with the best solutions they can to hold their communities together. As mandated by executive order, some churches are offering services for 50 or fewer parishioners, some are having drive-in services, while others are offering online services.
On a recent Sunday, I forgot to register ahead of time, but that was no problem as an usher quickly met me at the door to get my name and phone number. I was told the reason was so that if anyone gets sick who attended Mass, the Maine Center for Disease Control would be able to trace all the people who came in contact with that person. The list would only be turned over if a church-goer came down with COVID and the list would be destroyed if everything was fine after 14 days.
Well let me tell you, if anyone attending was ill or will soon come down with COVID-19, they are unlikely to have spread it to anyone in the church. The distance mandated between parishioners is just too great, everyone was wearing masks and hand sanitizer was at every door. Beyond that, if I was contaminated, where else is the CDC going to do tracing for me? Walmart, the grocery store, the gas station convenience store? No one is taking my name and phone number or anyone else’s in these locations.
Here’s the real rub: Has there been anyone going around with a clipboard asking for names and phone numbers of those participating in demonstrations across the state? Has social distancing been the norm at these events? I’m not saying protests should be outlawed — assembling for peaceful and lawful purposes is part of our First Amendment rights, which does not include being destructive or threatening, of course. I am saying religious groups, who also have rights under the First Amendment, are being singled out for imposition of more restrictions. Why? I believe it’s because we are by-and-large a compliant bunch, lots of tolerance, slow to anger and basically, don’t often make waves.
But as I was sitting at church, I found myself boiling inside. After so long away from worshiping with my community, I was looking forward to celebrating together and spending time on quiet devotion in a welcoming space. Instead, my thoughts were hijacked by the oppression, the obvious erosion of our freedom and rights as citizens, and the sadness that we are living in a time when control over innocent and well-meaning people is going unchecked. I admit my own weakness for needing to fight to regain command of my thoughts throughout the Mass and concentrate on the message of the day.
This is not about being religious or not religious. And it certainly isn’t about exposing vulnerable people to the coronavirus. Everyone encourages these people to stay away from the public as much as possible during this uncertain time. This is about respecting our citizens and respecting our heritage of freedom.
I appeal to Mainers to take notice that the tide is turning in a dangerous direction; and I appeal to the governor to do the tough thing and to trust leaders of our society (churches, schools, businesses, etc.) to be responsible caretakers of their individual population. Her oversight is as inequitable as it is crushing.
Sue Bernard of Caribou is a former television producer and anchor.