Religion and COVID-19: More than One Faith, More Than One Story

By BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler

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The media has spilled a lot of ink about a handful of churches raising religious liberty objections to stay-at-home orders and limits on in-person religious gatherings. But focusing only on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Christians — members of the majority religion in the United States — obscures the effects of the pandemic on a multitude of religious traditions.

If we broaden our view to consider how the public health crisis is impacting our neighbors of all faiths and none, we can better appreciate the way that religious principles of many traditions are being tested during this time, sometimes in ways that the practices of majority religions are not.

I recently read a CNN article about two Sikh doctors — and brothers — in Canada who chose to shave off their beards so they could wear N95 masks, the only protective equipment available at their health care facility. According to the reporting, this was an extremely difficult decision, since kesh, “the act of allowing one’s hair to grow out naturally,” is a key tenet of the Sikh religion. The two doctors struggled deeply with this choice, and it has sparked complicated conversations within the Sikh community. In response, Sikh medical and civil rights groups have partnered to offer resources, including beard-friendly PPE for Sikh medical providers and legal services for providers who face religious discrimination.

This past weekend, many Muslim communities across the world celebrated Eid al-Fitr, where Muslims break the Ramadan fast, usually with “family visits, group outings and worshippers flooding mosques or filling public spaces.” In the age of social distancing, many of the usual celebrations for this day are simply not a possibility. In similar ways to how Jews experienced Passover this year and Christians experienced Easter, many grieved the loss of these in-person communal celebrations, even as they worked to build joyful and virtual alternatives.

While some religious minorities face hard conversations about religious practice, social gatherings, and safety, still others are facing direct impacts on their religious group. In New York, COVID-19 has devastated the Hasidic Jewish community. For this group, the virus has been a “devastating force, killing influential religious leaders and tearing through large, tight-knit families.” Native Americans have been severely impacted with high rights of infection and death in places. In order to protect their communities, many have canceled tribal celebrations such as Spring Dance.

The unique burdens the crisis poses for minority religious communities is also a global concern. The U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, recently gave a special briefing on COVID-19’s impact on religious minorities. He focused on examples of continued government repression of religious minorities in some parts of the world as well as scapegoating and spread of disinformation about those groups.

Protecting faith freedom for all in a pandemic requires that we consider not just the concerns of the majority religion, but those who practice other faiths and those who do not claim a religious tradition. When we bring to light the diversity of religious experience in this time, we resist Christian nationalism, we help bring awareness to the struggles that our neighbors are facing and we can find creative solutions to help meet their needs.

COVID-19 has taught us that our health and safety is deeply connected to our neighbor’s health and safety, and I hope it also reminds us that our religious freedom is similarly connected. We will only defeat this virus — and the attendant threats to religious liberty — if we come together and engage in the hard work of building community across lines of difference.

Amanda Tyler is the executive director of BJC.

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