I live in America’s smallest state, Rhode Island. But like everywhere else in the United States, it is panicking over the coronavirus.

Governor Gina Raimondo has singled out particular religious groups for mention in forbidding gatherings – Passover and Easter being targeted specifically.

We are only supposed to go out for essential things like groceries, medicine, guns (yes, guns) and liquor. My concern here is with who is deciding what counts as essential. I believe that attending church is every bit as essential as going to the liquor store. Forty-four percent of Rhode Islanders identify as Catholic.

For us, and for all Christians, Easter is the most important holy day. It is central to our faith since it celebrates the resurrection of Christ, which is at the core of our religion.

The last time I checked into this, the free exercise of religion is protected by the First Amendment of the American Constitution. In times of stress and anxiety, people’s need to fall back on their religious faith is particularly strong.

There are lines outside grocery stores. Presumably someone has calculated how many people can fit in the store while still maintaining a safe distance between them. For large stores, this may be, and commonly is, a fairly large number of people.

So why can’t churches be judged by the same standard? Why protect the Second Amendment allowing guns and not the First Amendment allowing prayer? A large church could probably have at least 30 people scattered around. So why not let them have a gathering this size, using hand sanitizers as they come in and leave, observing all sensible precautions?

In these desperate times, people need guns and ammo.

It makes no sense that churches have been forbidden to hand out blessed palms on Palm Sunday but florist shops are being encouraged to offer curb-side pick-up?

“It seems a little ironic people can go to the supermarket and pick up food individually at restaurants and grab and go, yet Catholics are being told they can’t with the palms,” says Father Jeremy Rodrigues, a liturgist for the Catholic diocese of Providence.

Amen to that.

At work here is an underlying world view hostile to religion. Note that Raimondo specifically targets Catholics, Jew and Moslems and our religious holy days. For a serious believer, being able to attend Mass is one of the most important things in our lives. We may now feel we need liquor stores — and gun stores — more without the consolation of being able to worship in public.

Can’t we be creative in implementing social distancing? If the maximum size of group gatherings is 10, the church should offer small masses and have people sign up for them to limit size. But the churches should not be being singled out particularly for being closed along with “non-essential” businesses. People’s religion is and should be considered as one of the essential things they are permitted to go out and do.

We are slipping into mass hysteria – call it “coronaphobia.” People have been refused a chance to see family members on their death beds. For goodness sake, family members could wear something protective. This is not the bubonic plague. The majority of those who get the virus recover, and there are many who get very light cases. Mass graves occur only in highly crowded areas; there have been 25 deaths in Rhode Island out of population of 1.057 million.

I recently posted a note on our neighbourhood website asking if anyone knew of a small Christian group celebrating Easter in person (not on a screen). What happened next was amazing.

I was subjected to a vicious version of the “twitter mob” phenomenon: personally abusive and hysterical emails of every sort, some of them obscene, personal insults, spectres of mass graves, images of a horrible, painful death, and demands for even stricter guidelines for virus protection.

I was called a sick sociopath for insisting on practicing my religion. The most recent message says “To this group, I’m glad you all have time to waste on this Celia BS. It’s been going on for two days. If she’s real: she’s wingbat crazy, off her meds, a republican right wing instigator, or just a lonely old lady (man) trying to get attention. I’m signing off this site.”

The Twitter mob seem to have nothing better to do than tally up virus deaths, pump up their hysteria, and write hate emails.

The policy of trapping everyone in their own houses is not without its dangers. Many people are out of work and many small businesses have been forced to close. Those on the brink of poverty will fall through the cracks. Yes, the economy will spring back for the stock market and the wealthy, but those on the bottom may never recover. Domestic violence has greatly increased. Suicide hot lines are being deluged.

We, as a society, already suffer from too much social distancing. We need human contact to remain psychologically healthy.

There are ways in which churches can continue to function without having disastrous consequences. At first we were told we could not have group gatherings over 250. Then this went down until now they are saying six. During the time it was ten it would have been easy to have small masses attended only by ten people who would sign up in advance and not sit close together. Even masses for six people can be done.

Why not rent an outdoor drive-in movie theatre and construct a stage at the front upon which a Mass could be celebrated? Sound and lighting could be arranged for the faithful who would be sitting safely in their cars. No one would be coughing, sneezing or touching them or even breathing the same air.

People distributing Communion could use hand sanitizer (as they always do) and distribute it from car to car.

Might this raise the risk of contracting or passing on the coronavirus by 1 percent?

Possibly. Just as visiting essential services like laundromats, gas stations and pet supply stores might do so as well.

It might even put some priests at risk, but it is their job to minister to the faithful. Christianity is not a religion for the faint hearted.

Celia Wolf-Devine

Celia Wolf-Devine is retired from her position teaching philosophy at Stonehill College. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, USA with her husband Phil Devine, who is also a retired philosophy professor....