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Religious liberties No. 1 faith-driven story in '20

by TERRY MATTINGLY | December 26, 2020 at 2:39 a.m.

There was never any question whether the global coronavirus pandemic would be named the most important religion-news story of 2020.

The question was which faith-driven covid-19 story -- out of a dozen or so -- would top the Religion News Association's Top 10 list.

According to journalists who cover religion, this was the year's biggest story: "[covid]-19 pandemic claims lives of many religious leaders and laity, upends death rituals, ravages congregational finances, spurs charitable responses, forces religious observances to cancel or go online and stirs legal fights over worship shutdowns."

But there was a problem on my ballot. The RNA list included another coronavirus item focusing on religious liberty. In some cities and states, officials created pandemic regulations that claimed many institutions -- from grocery stores to casinos -- provided "essential services." Meanwhile, other institutions -- like churches and synagogues -- were deemed "nonessential."

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that religious institutions shouldn't face tougher rules than secular groups and activities. It was wrong, for example, to ban masked priests from hearing confessions -- outdoors, 10 feet away from masked penitents -- while consumers were lined up at liquor stores.

These conflicts continued. In a symbolic pre-Christmas news conference, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam explained why he thought religious groups should be willing to move their activities online and stay there -- for now.

"This year, we need to think about what is truly the most important thing," Northam explained in the news conference. "Is it the worship or the building? For me, God is wherever you are. You don't have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers."

Bishop Robert Barron of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles was not amused. The problem with this "secularized, Protestant-ized" view of worship, he said, is that it doesn't work for believers with ancient traditions that don't work online, such as offering communicants consecrated bread and wine.

"A lot of us, for a long time, have been worried that the secular state has been trying to push religion out of the public square," said Barron in a social-media video. "Sometimes you'll hear this language: 'Yeah, freedom of religion means freedom of worship, that you can kind of do your own thing behind the walls of your churches, just don't come out in public.'

"Well, that's bad enough. ... Now we're invading the private space of our own worship. Here's a secular governor instructing us on the nature of worship?"

For me, this First Amendment showdown was the most important religion-news story of 2020. Here's the rest of the association's top 10.

  1. Protests and riots follow the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, with many religious leaders in the forefront. Many religious institutions rethink their complicated histories with race.

  2. Joe Biden is the second Catholic to be elected president, with big assistance from an energized religious left, secular voters and believers in Black churches.

  3. Amy Coney Barrett, whose Catholic and charismatic faith history faced intense scrutiny, joins a conservative Supreme Court majority -- replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose liberal Jewish heritage helped shape her career.

  4. Police, using tear gas, clear out protesters so that President Donald Trump can pose with a Bible at historic St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House. Many religious leaders express outrage.

  5. Once again, white evangelicals overwhelmingly vote for Trump, despite dissent by some religious conservatives. Surprising numbers of Hispanic evangelicals and Catholics also back the president.

  6. Many governments and religious institutions oppose human-rights abuses by China against Muslim Uighurs and others in the Xinjiang region, including the use of internment camps.

  7. The Vatican releases a long-delayed report on ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, showing that bishops, cardinals and popes failed to act on sexual-misconduct reports.

  8. Pandemic limits on worship gatherings spur opposition from some Orthodox Jewish groups, Catholic bishops and evangelical leaders. The Supreme Court backs challenges by Catholic and Jewish groups to rules in New York and elsewhere.

  9. Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. resigns amid a firestorm over risque social media posts and an alleged sex scandal. Claims of sexual misconduct are made against late evangelical apologist Ravi Zacharias and Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz.

As religion newsmakers of the year, RNA poll voters selected George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, whose killings by police officers ignited protests against racial injustice and made them iconic images of the Black Lives Matter movement. President-elect Biden was the runner-up.

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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