The difficulties of defining religion, COVID-19 religious exemptions edition

With people seeking religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the question of how to define religion arises.

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Exemption requests are testing the boundaries of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements based on religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.”

To the benefit of objectors like Holmes, the provision defines “religion” broadly. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has specified that religious objections do not have to be recognized by an organized religion and can be beliefs that are new, uncommon or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”

They cannot, however, be based only on social or political beliefs. That means employers must try to distinguish between primarily political objections from people who may happen to be religious and objections that are actually religious at their core.

For many skeptics, resistance tends to be based not on formal teachings from an established faith leader but an ad hoc blend of online conspiracies and misinformation, conservative media and conversations with like-minded friends and family members.

This would not be a surprise to sociologists of religion and others who analyze religion in the United States. On the one hand, American religiosity has formal patterns. There are established religious traditions, denominations, and congregations. Christianity has been a dominant religious form and so its beliefs and practices are widespread. The First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and no state religion have provided room for religious groups to develop and grow.

On the other hand, for at least a few decades, American religion has been marked by a willingness by many to decide what their own religion will be comprised of. This ranges from people who attend a congregation but do not necessarily agree with important doctrines or practices to those who create a highly individualized faith that draws on multiple traditions. From the “Sheilaism” of the 1980s discussed in Habits of the Heart to those today who would say they are spiritual but not religious,

This then means that a definition of religion is difficult. Is it as simply as saying that someone “would know religion when they see it?” If the law needs precision in order to make decisions, this definition and its interpretation will be very important to deciding who has a viable religious exemption and who does not.

The capacity of a big box store with COVID distancing guidelines

Big box stores are ubiquitous in the United States today. From Walmart to Costco to Home Depot and more, they line major roadways and attract many shoppers. Outside of briefly considering how many people could fit into one of the buildings during Black Friday shopping or when seeing an empty building serve as a COVID-19 vaccine site, I do not regularly contemplate the capacity of the structures.

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Yet, in a recent trip to a nearby Target, I saw a sign stating how many people could be in the store given COVID-19 distancing guidelines. The number: 672 people. If that is the crowd allowed during COVID-19, the capacity during regular times must be quite a bit higher. Here are some numbers for Walmart stores in April 2020 when they imposed restrictions:

Starting Saturday, Walmart stores will allow no more than five customers for each 1,000 square feet of space. The restrictions will keep the stores at roughly 20% of their capacity, the company said. The average Walmart store is about 180,000 square feet. About 900 shoppers would be permitted in a store that size under the new restrictions.

From these numbers, the regular capacity for a 180,000 square foot store would be about 4,500 customers. The name big box store does not then solely refer to square footage; at full capacity a single store could hold more people than a small town or more than many full high school buildings.

Even during COVID-19, a large number of people are allowed in the building. I have been to big box stores during COVID but I do not think the stores were ever close to the reduced capacity. This does not mean I was not close to other customers; big box stores are set up like suburban subdivisions where foot traffic is funneled to main arteries (primary roads) and different sections have their own aisles (side streets). Still, there was a lot of room to operate in buildings that sometimes can seem to stretch out to the horizon.

Quarantining at home away from other residents, considering the size of the home and the layout

For roughly a year and a half, numerous Americans have quarantined themselves not just from work or school but from the other members of their households. Having more room in the residence and having particular floor plans would seem to help.

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First, having more square feet would allow the residents to keep more distance and could provide the quarantined person more space to operate. Quarantining for a week or two could feel more burdensome if someone is restricted to a small room or portion of a residence. Space provides options for rearrangement.

Second, square footage might not be everything as the floor plan can matter. Large common spaces, a regular feature of many newer homes, would be off-limits. A more closed-off floor plan with separated rooms might work better. Even better could be a separate wing – imagine a bedroom and bathroom on one side of the house or on another level than the other bedrooms. For example, a split-level could be split between the quarantined and everyone else. Or, an in-law suite or numerous bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. In contrast, a ranch home with all the bedrooms near each other and a large living space might limit options.

Few people likely purchased their homes or rented particular places with a pandemic in mind. But, considering medical issues is not out of the question for many when looking for a place to live. Think of mobility concerns or aging in place. Or, if someone has a serious illness, where might a hospital bed fit or how would an alternative sleeping arrangement work out?

All I have is anecdotal evidence on this through observing the setups of people on social media. It appears most just block off a bedroom or office type of space in the home for the quarantined person. This works well if you have extra space or a room that is used occasionally. I suspect this is not so easy with less space or a layout that makes it difficult to isolate a single person.

Housing for tenants, housing for landlords?

Who is housing for? The expiration of the national rent moratorium highlights competing interests in American housing:

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The eviction wave is expected to hit population centers across the country. Housing advocates point to renters in Ohio, Texas and parts of the Southeast — where tenant protections are generally low, housing costs are high and economic problems from the pandemic linger — as particularly at risk. Even though it has its own ban in place through August, New York is also a concern, because it has been especially slow at distributing rental assistance funds to the hundreds of thousands of tenants in the state who are behind on their rent.

The last-minute gridlock between President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress that resulted in the demise of the eviction ban this week threatens to impose new economic burdens on state and local governments. The officials will have to respond to mass evictions triggered by landlords — including many struggling financially themselves because of lost revenue — who are poised to kick out tenants who fell behind on their bills during the pandemic. The renter safety net is severely weakened, with fewer than a dozen state eviction bans in place and state and local governments having disbursed only a fraction of the $46.5 billion in rental assistance that Congress authorized over the past year.

About 7.4 million adult tenants reported they were behind on rent in the latest U.S. Census Bureau survey, which was taken during the last week of June and the first week of July. About 3.6 million tenant households said they were “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to face eviction over the next two months.

The lapse of the eviction ban, which was first imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September as a Covid-19 safety measure, comes after landlords warned that it cost them billions of dollars each month. Industry groups including the National Association of Realtors lobbied against extending the moratorium this week and made the case to lawmakers that it “unfairly shifts economic hardships to the backs of housing providers who have jeopardized their own financial futures to provide essential housing to renters across the country.”

In addition to tenants and landlords, there are more actors involved including builders, developers, real estate agents, mortgage providers, local officials, and more. But, ultimately, whose interests should win out in times of trouble?

The era of COVID-19 is a very unusual time. But, the US has faced severe housing issues before. The housing bubble of the late 2000s. The Great Depression. A housing shortage after World War Two. In the United States, the logic regarding housing tends to default to free markets – people can access what they have resources for and there is much money to be made in housing – plus homeownership. With both, interventions from actors, like the federal government, may be necessary in times of crisis or for people with very limited means. In non-crisis times, interventions can favor developers and homeowners.

In contrast, there is less support for public housing or seeing housing as a right. Housing is needed for a variety of reasons – health, stability, accessing jobs and services, personal space, etc. – but not guaranteed.

If any city or local government truly wanted to distinguish itself as a people-oriented location rather than a market-oriented community, guaranteed housing would be one way to stand out.

Building the ability to disperse billions in rental aid assistance in the US

Congress has allocated billions for rental aid assistance amid COVID-19 but it takes time and infrastructure to distribute it to American renters:

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With millions of Americans out of work due to the pandemic, the eviction moratorium helped keep people in their homes — but it also put a squeeze on landlords. To help, between the December and March COVID relief packages, Congress approved more than $46 billion in rental assistance. Exact amounts renters and landlords can receive depend on their income and where they live, but renters could get enough to cover rent from as far back as March 13, 2020, unpaid utilities and even, in some cases, future rent.

But by the end of May, only $1.5 billion had gone out. And officials are racing against the clock: The federal eviction moratorium ends July 31…

“While we have substantial funds through the American Rescue Plan, we as a nation have never had a national infrastructure to prevent unnecessary evictions,” White House American Rescue Plan Coordinator Gene Sperling said recently during an eviction prevention summit.

While there had been some state and local rental assistance programs, the scale of this program was beyond what they’d handled, a Treasury official said. State and local entities had to build IT systems and hire staff. Some programs did not even open until May or June — but since opening, a Treasury spokesperson said, there has been an exponential increase in renters getting money. Landlords and renters can apply directly for funds through their states, counties and in some cases tribal authorities depending on where they live.

Unprecedented times lead to unprecedented processes? Putting the money into the right hands in a timely manner is no easy task. The steps include:

-approving the monies and making it available

-letting people know that the money is available

-encouraging applications

-processing applications

-disbursing funds

-applying the funds to rent

-overseeing the program during the process and afterward

If it comes together, millions of Americans will be able to stay in their housing and landlords will rent they were waiting for.

Now, to tackle the broader issues of affordable housing in helpful locations…

Brick and mortar success in selling chickens and other farming supplies to new “ruralpolitans”

The shift of Americans from cities to suburbs and rural areas helped boost the fortunes of retailer Tractor Supply:

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Such gangbusters growth is unlikely to continue, with the pandemic easing. But the rush to the country that underpins it is less an anomaly than a speeding up of a long-tern trend, as more people – notably millennials yearning to become homeowners – look to adopt quasi-rural lifestyles. Being priced out of urban living is one driving factor; interest in healthier and more sustainable diets, including homegrown vegetables and home-harvested eggs, is another. Whatever is motivating them, Tractor Supply sees an opportunity in these “ruralpolitans” – and the COVID-driven shift toward remote work will help sustain their numbers.

Lawton, who became CEO in early 2020 after two years as the No. 2 at Macy’s, says millennials’ willingness to move farther from city centers is a “game changer”: “We seeing a new kind of shopper in our stores,” he tells Fortune. Now Tractor Supply is adapting to cater to both its established customer base and these younger space-seekers, following a strategic road map with the folksy title “Life Out Here.”…

The fast-growing cohort that Tractor Supply is cultivating, she says, are “beginning to learn how to garden. They have this passion for poultry.” Call them the “country suburban” customers.

The company is strategic about where it meets these customers. Its stores are almost all located in mid-size or small towns – communities that are often too small to support a Home Depot, Petco, or Walmart.

The economic impact of COVID-19 has hit some businesses very hard while others, like Tractor Supply, have found opportunities. From the sound of this article, they had locations in numerous places that received new residents during COVID-19 and had the right mix of products and service that appealed to them.

I wonder about the class dynamics of all of this. How do the new “ruralpolitans” who want to raise chickens or have a small farm and have moved from the city compare to the other shoppers at Tractor Supply or to long-term residents in the community?

Another question to ask is whether these newer residents with these interests in food and farming are in it for the long haul or not. On one hand, if remote work is more viable than ever, perhaps people will stay in smaller communities outside cities and pursue this. On the other hand, if companies ask more workers to return or if small-scale agriculture and animal husbandry is not appealing in the long run, this may be more of a flash in the pan. Industry-wide shifts in agriculture could have an impact as well.

Finally, the move to a more rural life has implications for private lives and community life. Many Americans say they like the idea of living in a small town but this is different than actually living in one. What is the tipping point where an influx of new residents changes the character of the community (or is change somewhat inevitable)? How involved will these new residents be in local organizations, religious congregations, local government, and in local social affairs?

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: building maintenance

As religious groups and congregations ponder attendance post-COVID-19, the condition of their buildings is also important to consider:

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In San Francisco, the historic Old St. Mary’s Cathedral survived when members rebuilt after a fire following the 1906 earthquake but it has struggled mightily during the pandemic to stay open.

The 160-year-old Roman Catholic church, which is heavily dependent on older worshippers and tourists, lost most of its revenue after parishes closed during the pandemic. During those “dark hours,” the Rev. John Ardis had to dismiss most of the lay staff, cut the salary of a priest and close the parish preschool.

The plaster is crumbling, the paint is peeling off the walls and dozens of its stained-glass windows need to be replaced.

Any building requires regular maintenance in order for it to best meet the needs of its users. Churches and religious buildings are no exception. Roofs, heaters and air conditioners, floors, walls, paint, exteriors, and more need checking, repairs, and replacing on a cycle.

The example above hints at two problems COVID-19 brings for the maintenance of religious buildings. First, many congregations depend on tithes or gifts from people in order to keep their building in order. If attendance is down or people are not in the building, they may not give as much in order to take care of the structure. With less money, there are needs to prioritize and basics of the building might fall outside of this as the congregation tries to get by. Second, building maintenance might be tied to the regular presence of people within the building. If a congregation does not meet in the structure for months at a time and/or the group meets online, the building is out of sight and out of mind. It does not need to be maintained in the same way as a structure that regularly has people in and out throughout the week.

Those who do return to services and gatherings post-COVID-19 might find the building needs some work. As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community. Depending on the age of the structure, the funding during COVID-19, and maintenance over the year-plus, the building may need attention or at least to return to its regular maintenance cycle.

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: will they be used again?

What will happen to church attendance after COVID-19 is up in the air with one article suggesting “Surveys do show signs of hopefulness — and also cause for concern.” But, the same piece also hints that some religious buildings will not survive because of the trouble from COVID-19:

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In Maine, Judy Grant, 77, was a newcomer to Waldoboro who started watching the services online and then began attending in person…

“I’m extremely disappointed,” she said. “A lot of churches are closing. I think COVID had a big part in this latest shrinkage, but they were shrinking even before that,” she said…

Afterward, people began removing some of the church’s contents, including religious paintings, some furniture, and other items.

Grant said some hope the building will come alive again with a new congregation: “We have to be positive — and pray.”

With all that has happened, some religious congregations will stop meeting and will no longer need their building. If there is an uptick in closings of religious congregations, there might be a lot of religious buildings on the market as religious groups look to sell empty buildings.

As the example above suggests, the existing religious structure could be used by another religious group. Building a new structure is a costly task and a new congregation might jump at the opportunity to acquire and modify an existing building. The religious building could be converted to another use, whether a business office or residences. Or, a developer might see the land as good site for another use all together. Some religious buildings occupy important spaces in communities.

Even as religious groups respond to the winding down of COVID-19, it will be worth paying attention to religious buildings as well as religious congregations. As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community.

Who has returned to the Chicago highways after COVID-19 is a little different

As traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels across the United States, data from Chicago suggests the composition of vehicles has changed a bit:

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Travel times have already returned mostly to normal on Chicago’s expressways, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. On the Eisenhower, it’s taking drivers an average of 40 minutes to get from Wolf Road to the Jane Byrne Interchange during morning rush hour, compared with 32 minutes in June 2019. Drivers taking the Kennedy from downtown to O’Hare International Airport in the afternoon spent about an hour on the road in both June 2019 and 2021.

Who’s on the road might be changing, though. Truck traffic is up, and more people are working remotely. Among those heading out, more people who were taking public transit before the pandemic seem to be driving, IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said.

On one hand, more people are working from home. On the other hand, another long-term change might be that those who used to take mass transit regularly will not go back to that for a long time or ever. What will it take for mass transit ridership to come back to pre-COVID-19 levels? When will people feel comfortable again on trains, buses, and subways? Multiple cities are trying to address this but, as I argued last week, mass transit is already is less preferable for many commuters even before COVID.

Imagine a post-COVID-19 traffic nightmare: trucks all over the place delivering goods as the economy continues to rebound. More cars on the roads because of fears about mass transit. People who were home for months and/or were used to less congestion on the road now stuck in worse traffic. Are there any good short and long-term solutions to addressing this while the mass transit efforts also continue?

Getting people back to mass transit after COVID-19 – and a deck stacked against mass transit

Mass transit agencies across the United States are trying different strategies to try to get people back after COVID-19:

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Agencies in Boston, Cleveland, Las Vegas, the San Francisco Bay Area, and New Orleans are offering reduced fares or free rides, temporarily, to lure people back onto transit. Others are considering abolishing fares altogether. Los Angeles is exploring a 23-month pilot that would give students and low-income residents free rides. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority scrapped fares in March 2020 and doesn’t plan to bring them back. “The return on investment for empathy, compassion, for social equity, far outweighs the return on investment for concrete and asphalt,” Robbie Makinen, the agency’s CEO, told Stateline last week.

Others are taking aim at an even more sacred cow: rush hour service…

Agencies are using the murky period of pandemic recovery to usher in schedule changes. In Los Angeles, officials for Metra, the local commuter rail, said this month they would test new schedules that “step away” from the pre-pandemic, rush hour norm, “in favor of a more balanced approach” that spaces trains more evenly throughout the day. In Boston, officials in April went ahead with pre-pandemic plans and began running more frequent commuter trains outside the schedules of the 9-to-5ers. It’s part of a bigger vision to transform the system into a more equitable regional rail network that serves more than the traditional office worker. Off-peak riders are more likely to be immigrants, women, people of color, and lower income. The pandemic, as the local advocacy group TransitMatters has observed, may have given the local agency the “political space” to make long-planned changes. There are fewer people now to complain that operators took away their specific train.

Just as the aftermath of COVID-19 offers an opportunity to think about housing, here is an opportunity to reconsider mass transit strategies. Why keep doing things the same old ways when the world has changed? If different cities and regions experiment with different tractics, they might find a few that work and that can be widely adopted.

At the same time, mass transit does not just face COVID-19 fallout. If given the choice, many Americans would prefer not to use mass transit. If needing to travel, they would prefer to drive unless this is really inconvenient. Driving offers more individual freedom to come and go and offers completely personal space (outside of seeing other drivers and passengers in nearby vehicles). American governments have spent a lot of money in the last century paying for roads and driving infrastructure while investments in mass transit have lagged or mass transit is often tied to driving (an emphasis on buses).

Additionally, if a post-COVID-19 world means that working from home is more of an option, more people simply will not need mass transit and/or will enjoy not having to use it. Mass transit could still be useful for going out but if it is not needed for work for as many people, this will mean losing a lot of regular riders.

More broadly, this gets at bigger questions in the United States about development, density, transportation, and thriving communities. An ongoing commitment to cars has consequences as would a shift toward a different kind of mass transit or constructing more dense places where mass transit makes more sense. If the best that can be done now is to prioritize transit-oriented development in denser pockets in urban areas, it will take a long time to swing trips toward mass transit compared to driving.