Most Oppose Exempting Churches From Covid Restrictions, Poll Shows

Parishioners wear face masks as they attend an in-person Mass at Christ the King Catholic Church in San Antonio on May 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

(CN) — An overwhelming majority of Americans said that houses of worship should not be allowed to ignore rules about social distancing, the Pew Research Center found in a survey released Friday.

Though most respondents supported modifications to congregation, rather than full closures, only a third said they have recently attended in-person service as the church landscape in America has shifted.  

In the survey of 10,211 adults from July 13 to 19, researchers found that 79% overall said religious institutions should be subject to the same social distancing guidelines as any other organization or business. Seventy-four percent of Christians, 80% of Jewish Americans and 89% of unaffiliated religious individuals agreed, along with 93% of Democrats.

Republicans were slightly more supportive of religious exemptions from Covid-19 guidelines at 33%, though a 65% majority nonetheless supported distancing requirements for houses of worship.

However, respondents who used to attended service regularly or have recently mostly supported in-person service with restrictions at 57%, while only 28% supported full closures.

Parsing what respondents would like from their respective congregations and what those institutions are actually doing, the data showed 55% of regular worshipers said that their respective churches are open with modifications and 31% said their church was closed.

When asked about specific safety measures, 51% of worshippers said their institutions should require social distancing, 44% said they should require masks, 41% said they should restrict attendance, and 29% said they should limit communal singing.

The churches themselves appeared to fall just shy of public opinion. Forty-five percent of respondents said that their respective institutions are requiring distance, 35% said their house of worship requires a mask, 36% said that their church restricts attendance and 20% said their institution limits communal singing.

Stratifying by denominations, evangelical Protestants and Catholics were most likely to want modified in-person services at 64% and 62%, respectively. Mainline Protestants and historically Black Protestants were slightly more conflicted about having in-person service. Forty-nine percent of mainline Protestants wanted modified service, and 40% wanted full closures. Forty-six percent of historically Black Protestants wanted modified service, compared to 41% who wanted full closures.

Like the overall average of religious respondents, the realities of respondents’ respective denominational churches trended closely with their prescriptions for services. Sixty-four percent of Evangelical Protestants said that their church is open with modifications, and 65% of Catholics said the same. Mainline Protestants saw an even split between modified open churches and closures at 45%. However, historically Black Protestant churches were slightly more likely to be fully closed at 41% versus 35% who indicated modified in-person service.

With these modifications in place, most religious respondents felt at least somewhat safe at in-person services with an overall average of 64%. Evangelical Protestants and white Catholics indicated the highest sense of safety at 75% and 71%, respectively. Hispanic Catholics and historically Black Protestants felt the least secure of regular attenders at 47% and 50%, respectively.

In any given denomination, no more than 9% of respondents indicated fully open service with no restrictions. Seventy-two percent of worshipers indicated they are largely viewing services virtually, either online or on television. Nearly half, 49%, said they have only attended virtual service during the coronavirus pandemic. Though most respondents of various denominations fell close to the average, historically Black Protestants were much more likely to attend service exclusively virtually at 70%.

Nonetheless, three-quarters of respondents said their respective sermons have included an emphasis on the importance of mitigating the pandemic. Majorities of churchgoers also said that sermons were apolitical regarding the 2020 presidential election candidates, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, at 72% and 79% overall, respectively.

Looking to the future, 73% of regular attenders said they will go back to service as normal once the pandemic subsides. Those who did attend houses of worship less often were more likely to forego sermons altogether in the future at 60%.

In essence, the data indicated that those who have remained close with their religious institution through the pandemic will likely retain their pre-pandemic worship habits, whereas those who congregated less often or almost never before are likely to cease altogether when the crisis has ended.

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