A year ago this month, Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn were taking to the streets in fiery protests against then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on religious services, ultimately seeing those rules struck down by the Supreme Court ahead of Hanukkah and Christmas. 

Later, at Easter time, a pastor in Alberta would be arrested and held in jail for holding illegal church services, coming out of custody to warn, “They are doing this to me. They are going to come after you. It’s just a matter of time.” 

These are just two of many stories of the overlooked struggle of religious leaders to confront shutdowns that have hindered religious celebration throughout the past 18 months. With another holiday season on the horizon, it’s worth reflecting on the toll congregants have paid when houses of worship are shuttered. New research paints an alarming picture. 

Up until roughly April 2021, between 60 and 80 percent of US states had either numeric or percentage cap restrictions on houses of worship. In some cases, the restrictions were so severe that church meetings, regardless of size, were not permitted. Although many churches applied for exemptions, and courts ultimately sided with many of them, 39 percent of households were not able to attend worship regularly as of August 2020 (that’s about 128 million Americans, based on 2019 census estimates). 

In a newly released paper of mine, together with new data made available through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, I quantify the effects of state restrictions on houses of worship on individuals’ subjective well-being. Using data from Gallup between March 2020 and June 2021, I compare measures of well-being among religious adherents and their counterparts before versus after the adoption of restrictions within their states. 

I find that pandemic restrictions significantly reduced religious peoples’ well-being. These effects persisted even after controlling for a wide array of demographic features, such as age and education, and other characteristics, such as income and industry. For example, the restrictions led to a 4.1 percentage point rise in self-isolation among the religious, relative to their counterparts. And they reduced life satisfaction by 0.09 standard deviations, an effect nearly twice as large as the male-female difference in the same measure. 

Pandemic restrictions over the past 18 months has significantly reduced religious peoples’ well-being.
Pandemic restrictions over the past 18 months has significantly reduced religious peoples’ well-being.
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My research finds that these effects were driven by increases in social isolation. Given that people who regularly worship build their community among those they worship with, a sudden and complete removal of in-person interaction led to a substantial decline in their well-being. These costs were not just caused by any unique economic challenges of the pandemic that religious people might have faced. For example, I did not find any systematic disparate effect of the restrictions on personal finances, job preparedness, or economic sentiment. 

Of all the unequal impacts of the pandemic, the costs of state and local restrictions that fell squarely on religious households seem underappreciated. Although everyone felt the effects of national and state quarantines, and Americans struggled with mental health more broadly, my paper shows that religious adherents, especially Catholics or other Christians, experienced unique harm. 

Even more troubling is that the costs of shutdowns for places of worship were not limited to the congregants. Evidence from a Baylor University study led up by Byron Johnson shows that faith-based organizations shoulder the bulk of the homelessness burden in cities, caring for the least fortunate. In this sense, cutting off in-person worship simultaneously cuts off one of the primary ways that houses of worship serve their broader communities. 

These restrictions may seem unique to the pandemic, but they’re not. They come at a time when, by various measures, religious liberty is being attacked. My other research, for example, finds that the United States experienced a 35.1 percent decline in religious freedom overall between 2006 and 2018, based on indices and polling gathered from across the world. (Examples include the silencing of Christian student Chike Uzuegbunam, who was barred from discussing the Gospel in a “free speech zone” at Georgia College. Ultimately the Supreme Court sided with Uzuegbunam in a 8-1 decision authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, but the situation shouldn’t have warranted litigating in the first place.) 

Shutting down churches also means restricting their help to feeding the homeless and others in need.
Shutting down churches also means restricting their help to feeding the homeless and others in need.
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That trend is not unique to just the United States. In fact, the decline in religious freedom is concentrated among countries that historically have ranked high in economic freedom. 

As churches start to reopen, the need for Zoom Masses and Facebook worship services will hopefully come to an end, and congregants will once again enjoy the benefits of authentic in-person fellowship. But Americans taking time to reflect, particularly as Thanksgiving approaches, on their First Amendment right to worship as they deem fit, should hold fast to the lessons of the last year. 

It’s become a trope, but houses of worship should never again be indefinitely closed, particularly when other establishments, such as bars and marijuana dispensaries, are allowed to remain open. These indefinite restrictions on freedom contradict the ideals on which America was founded — and we now have the data to prove they deteriorate social capital and mental health, too. 

Christos A. Makridis is a research professor at Arizona State University, a non-resident fellow at Baylor Universities Institute for Studies of Religion and an adjunct scholar at the Manhattan Institute. 

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