Things to Keep in Mind on Reopening Holy Places

May 26, 2020 Updated: May 29, 2020


Reopening houses of worship has started, unevenly, around the country. Some religious institutions think they are ready to go. Others are hesitant and are waiting for some more definitive changes in the virus epidemic that would ease the process.

President Trump has declared churches, synagogues, mosques and other holy places to be “essential services,” but his declaration still leaves a great deal of uncertainty on how to proceed, if at all.

Here are considerations all organizations should keep in mind.

Protection of Elderly and Compromised Individuals

Perhaps the most important consideration is how to manage religious site access for the elderly and for those who have preexisting health conditions because they have experienced a much higher death rate from coronavirus than the general population. Indeed, the number of deaths in nursing homes is rather appalling. While it is true that some of these deaths certainly could have been avoided, the fact remains that the elderly and health compromised are an especially at-risk population.

This is an especially difficult matter because the elderly are most likely to attend worship services, so in any reopening scenario, special attention must be given to this population.

In normal times, sixty percent of people age 65 and older report attending religious services at least once a week; among 18 to 30-year-olds, just 28 percent go that often. Polling data tells us is that not only are older people more likely to go to church, synagogue or mosque, but most of them are Christian and more than half of them live in the south of the United States.

An ABC TV poll reported: “For most Americans, going to religious services means going to church, since 83 percent of adults in this country are Christians.” The ABC poll goes on to report: “Nearly half of Southerners attend services weekly, substantially more than elsewhere. Forty-four percent of women go weekly, compared to 32 percent of men. It follows that, among Southern women age 45 and up, weekly church attendance soars to 68 percent.”

The problem, while smaller in raw numbers, is also an issue in mosques and synagogues. For observant Jews, prayer requirements can create issues. For example, many observant Jews—and all Orthodox Jews—cannot form a virtual “minyan” (the requirement that certain prayers be said only in the company of nine or more others) using Zoom or some other video conferencing application nor can they use computers or mobile phones on the Sabbath or other holy days. Thus, if the elderly cannot attend synagogue, or pray in the company of others, they face compromising either their health or their religious duty.

A suitable solution is not easy. One alternative that some churches have adopted, is holding services in parking lots or other outdoor space, weather permitting. Outdoor services facilitate social distancing, and as we are entering late Spring, provided that the weather is good, outdoor services should be encouraged, or at least parallel services should be held for the vulnerable population.

If there is good news it is the virus ought to be largely gone by late Fall and by Christmas, the first vaccines ought to be available. Therefore, the idea of outdoor services as an interim measure for the most at-risk church, synagogues, mosque and temple congregants makes sense.

Strengthening Security

Security for holy places must be renewed and retested before services start anew. Security is not something that is automatic and always there. It depends on trained people, including guards and volunteers, and it requires that all the technology and alarm systems be working properly. It is easy to rush back and neglect security measures, but this is not a good approach at all.

During the lock down period there have been a number of incidents including burglaries, vandalism, and arson fires that have damaged or destroyed houses of worship because empty, and sometimes unattended, buildings are easy targets. While the overall number of attacks is relatively small, it is consistent with the level of incidents that happens when holy sites are operating.

The biggest danger to those who attend religious services is an existential event—that is some life-threatening incident. Sadly, the most common threat is the active shooter and, while active shooting incidents are not common, when they happen, they are very costly in terms of injury and lives lost. Other serious risks include bombs (which are sometimes combined with active shooting incidents) and deliberately set fires when people are at worship.

In almost every known case, attackers have chosen “soft” targets that were mostly undefended. The attackers were on a “mission,” seeking maximum harm and maximum suffering for the victims and were themselves, mentally speaking, suicidal. It is essential, then, to show a potential attacker that the site is defended. If your security is visible and daunting, the attacker will often see that as an impediment to his “mission,” and that is often enough to dissuade the shooter or bomber from launching the attack in the first place.

Every congregation should review its security setup, check its systems—including public address systems, walkie-talkies, fire alarms and sensors, and cameras to ensure they are operational and fit for purpose. Guards and volunteers should meet, reeducate themselves on their responsibilities, and practice working together before any reopening.

It is important that the overall security plan be reviewed to make sure it is at a suitable level to inspire confidence in the church leadership and among the congregants. People need to feel secure in prayer, because this is a time when they want to devote their time to prayer entirely, and it is a time when the congregants are most vulnerable. The security plan must be strong and viable enough to establish a strong security environment.

Protecting Rights

As holy places are reopened, there are health concerns and there are security concerns. But there are also concerns about the free exercise of religion and freedom of assembly under rules placed on houses of worship by state and local governments.

Some of these have been restrictive in ways Americans see as violations of their First Amendment rights under the Constitution. Authorities, for example, have imposed rules that limit the number of people in a religious assembly, and sent police or other officials to audit the process and disperse worshippers, and in some cases handed out fines or closures.

Congregations have begun to take their governments to court, and it has previously been ruled in the United State that government mandates (at any level) cannot overrule the protections of the Bill of Rights, even in an authorized emergency.

New Jersey Gov. Philip Murphy became a national laughing stock when he said, “the Bill of Rights is above my pay grade,” and admitted he was not thinking of the Constitution when he pronounced restrictive orders on the people of his state. While (very) temporary restrictions may protect the health of the community, as cases of COVID-19 decrease, longer lasting damage could be done by undermining the Constitution.

Or ignoring it.

Stephen Bryen is the author of “Security for Holy Places: How to Build a Security Plan for your Church, Synagogue, Mosque or Temple” (New York: Morgan James Publishing)

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.