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Annie Laurie Gaylor: Religious governors a danger to our health

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

We “Nones,” atheists and agnostics can properly take pride in the freethought movement’s pro-science and pro-public health actions during this pandemic. Religious-minded public officials, however, occupy the other end of the spectrum.

Atheists are the most likely to say we will get a vaccine, while white evangelical Protestants are the least likely to, according to Pew Research Center. Nine in 10 atheists say they would definitely or probably get a vaccine or already have had one, compared to 77 percent of Catholics, 65 percent of Black Protestants and 54 percent of white evangelical Protestants. Similarly, only about 56 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents say they’ll get a vaccine, compared to eight in 10 Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents.

As has been well-documented, Christian nationalism may determine whether you wear a mask or, if you are a public official, mandate masking. A survey last fall showed that subscribing to Christian nationalist views is the second leading predictor of whether someone would engage in precautionary measures, such as social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands.

And therein lies a huge problem: Many public officials, including governors, are disproportionately white Protestants or Catholics — some of them indeed strong Christian nationalists. These public officials with religiously impaired judgment are calling the public health shots for the rest of us in irresponsible ways that are costing Americans’ health and lives, and crippling our nation’s recovery from the pandemic. Yes, the nation dodged a bullet when it unseated the last president, a Christian nationalist panderer, most of whose Covid-19 policies were harmful and full of “alternative facts.” But almost half of our states are led by similar panderers or true believers who have or are shunning science and common sense.

About 64 percent of Americans live in counties where there is a very high or extremely high risk of exposure to Covid-19. With 65,000 new cases a day, the most common variant of the coronavirus is the highly infectious version originating in the United Kingdom. B.1.1.7 is 60 percent more contagious and 67 percent more deadly than the original form of the virus. This is no time for governors and public officials to relax vigilance.

Yet 21 states have no statewide face covering mandates. Ten states recently lifted statewide mask mandates, eight via gubernatorial order (Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming), one by court order (Wisconsin) and one by legislation action (Kansas). Alabama’s mask mandate has also just ended.

What is happening in the FFRF’s home state of Wisconsin is a travesty, just to take one example. The Wisconsin Legislature, along partisan lines, overrode Gov. Tony Evers’ Covid-19 emergency order and mask mandate, even knowing this action would cost a catastrophic loss in federal supplemental benefits tied to state mandates. In early April, the ultraconservative Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the mask mandate — despite knowing that beginning in May hungry state citizens will lose out on a total of more than $50 million per month in supplemental food aid. Had the court been willing to wait only one more day before issuing the ruling, the state still would have received the $50 million payment for May. The court’s and the Legislature’s callous, cavalier cruelty makes Scrooge look like a philanthropist.

Most of the governors who have refused to issue or are rescinding masking orders are religious Republicans (see list below), many of whom preferred to proclaim unconstitutional days of prayer over Covid-19 rather than show responsible leadership.

Are these public officials just too religious to care? Are they truly so blinded to facts, evidence, science and compassion? It seems so.

FFRF and its membership have our work cut out for us in combating so many public officials whose true allegiance lies with religious lobbies, churches and their own particular dogmas, instead of their oath of office. That oath includes upholding the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, which calls for promoting the public welfare of We the People.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of FFRF.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey held a prayer (which FFRF protested) while announcing a statewide stay-at-home order last spring. She declared May 7 last year as a day of prayer in light of Covid-19 and quoted the New Testament in a statement urging citizens to stay at home if possible.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy refused mandates, instead calling for an “Alaska Day of Prayer and Hope.”

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has signed a law to protect many entities, including religious institutions, from being sued over Covid-19. Last April, he issued an Easter/Passover proclamation imploring a turn toward prayer “in times of trials and uncertainty.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis belatedly encouraged social distancing a year ago but has still urged Floridians to “Please keep God close.” He has exempted churches from social distancing rules. He has also steadfastly refused to enact statewide mask mandates and is working to strike down local face-covering ordinances.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in February announced the “Faith Protection Act” to ensure the governor’s emergency powers could not be used to “specifically limit the practice of any religion.” He held a prayer service and day of prayer at the Georgia Capitol last April, which streamed live on Facebook. 

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (who recently got publicly vaccinated), issued a “Day of Prayer” for Covid-19 in Iowa a year ago instead of a ma  sking mandate. 

Idaho Gov. Brad Little refused to issue a mask mandate and asked “Idaho to unite in prayer” over Covid. He did indicate that he would be attending church remotely at that time.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said on Nov. 30, in opposing church limitations, that “God is bigger than government,” promising “The right to freely practice your faith must never be infringed.” He also held a “Statewide Day of Prayer, Humility and Fasting.” 

Missouri Gov. Michael Parson on multiple occasions has appealed to prayers and citizens to pray and last spring exempted houses of worship from social distancing rules.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, who tested positive for Covid-19, along with his wife, reversed some public health restrictions implemented by previous Gov. Steve Bullock. They attend Grace Bible Church, a nondenominational church.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts proclaimed Dec. 30 as a “Day of Prayer” for “relief from the pandemic.” (Ricketts notoriously signed a proclamation this year declaring Roe v. Wade as an “Annual Statewide Day of Prayer to End Abortion.”)

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum started a press conference last spring with prayer, although he did thank churches for being “North Dakota Smart” by not holding in-person services at that time.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt declared Dec. 3 — as virus cases surged — a statewide day of prayer and fasting for Oklahomans affected by Covid-19. 

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster not only proclaimed a day of prayer over the pandemic last May, but championed a bill to treat churches and other religious organizations as “essential services” during a state of emergency (which has passed the House). FFRF complained many times about his use of prayer at official press briefings including about  his March 19 conference. McMaster tried to misallocate $32 million in coronavirus aid to students attending private schools but was successfully sued.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem proclaimed a day of prayer over the virus and recently defended her hands-off approach to Covid-19.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee told mayors last year to pray about the virus, rather than pass mandates. Last May, he issued an executive order blocking local governments from regulating places of worship to stop the spread of the virus. He announced he would send out prayers in January three times a week for the next four weeks about Covid-19. Although he had sharp words for churches a year ago last March that were still meeting in person, he exempted churches from in-person limitations imposed late last December.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott proclaimed churches “essential services” a year ago, making an exception for church services in his stay-at-home order. Abbott urged “Texans of faith to lift each other up in prayer.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott