As clashes over coronavirus-related restrictions on business and religious gatherings escalate to the level of the Supreme Court, Republican Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock have offered differing visions of how to combat the pandemic ahead of the state’s all-important runoff election.
Democratic governors in several states, including New York and California, have imposed attendance limits on houses of worship and other gathering places because of a “second wave” of the pandemic. While state leaders have argued the measures are necessary to protect public health, religious leaders have decried the limits as a violation of the First Amendment.
The debate over public religious gatherings during a deadly global pandemic presents a unique dilemma for Warnock, who has been the senior pastor at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church since 2005. The reverend, who has repeatedly attacked Loeffler for failing to secure additional coronavirus relief for Georgians, has not publicly commented on the legal battles over religious restrictions in other states.
“Reverend Warnock supports following the advice of public health experts,” a Warnock campaign spokesperson told Fox News regarding Warnock’s stance.
Government response to the coronavirus pandemic is a central issue in both of Georgia’s Senate runoff races, the outcome of which will determine what party controls the upper chamber of Congress. Warnock has accused Loeffler of ignoring the needs of ordinary Georgians while personally profiting from the pandemic through stock transactions, while Loeffler has claimed that Warnock is a “radical” who would back progressive policies.
Loeffler, a staunch supporter of President Trump, has been a vocal critic of lockdown measures in response to the pandemic. In October, Loeffler was one of several senators who filed an amicus brief in support of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, which alleged in a lawsuit that Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser enforced attendance limits on religious gatherings while allowing mass protests to proceed unimpeded.
At the time, Loeffler argued “if it is safe for thousands to gather to protest outdoors, it is safe for churches to gather for worship outdoors.”
When asked to comment on recent legal battles in New York and California, the Loeffler campaign shifted the focus to the impact that lockdowns have had on business.
“Senator Loeffler believes in sensible guidelines to stop the spread, but she adamantly opposes the lockdowns that radical Democrats like Raphael Warnock supports that are crippling states like New York and California,” Loeffler deputy campaign manager Stephen Lawson said in a statement. “She will continue using her business experience to reopen & reignite our economy, get people back to work, and beat this virus.”
The Warnock-led Ebenezer Baptist Church has conducted its Sunday services in a virtual format since March 15, shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began. Atlanta, where the church is located, has enacted stricter guidelines under Democratic mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has required city residents required to wear masks and capped gatherings at 10 people or less.
Under Georgia’s current statewide guidelines, gatherings of more than 50 people are prohibited unless social distancing is observed. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, has encouraged residents to wear masks in public but has so far stopped short of implementing a statewide mandate.
In November, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to block New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo from enforcing attendance limits under his “cluster initiative,” which sought to restrict gatherings in areas where large numbers of COVID-19 cases had been detected. Local Orthodox Jewish and Catholic groups had argued the restrictions were discriminatory.
In a similar ruling earlier this month, the Supreme Court sided with a California church that challenged restrictions imposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The court ordered state judges to block strict limits on religious institutions.
“Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the Supreme Court said in an unsigned majority opinion. “The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”
Georgia health officials have urged local places of worship to adhere to social distancing requirements of at least six feet, increase sanitization practices and avoid handing out bulletins to attendees, among other safety measures. Religious leaders were also urged to consider holding events online rather than in-person to protect congregants.