We are truly living in strange times. Every day there is more news about COVID-19—and every day the news we receive continues to be conflicted. For every news report shouting how bad things are I can find one that says the opposite. For every report that says things are going to get worse, I can find one that says the worst is over. For every report that says COVID-19 is far worse than the flu and is going to take tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of lives, I can find one that says those estimates are vastly overblown and the mortality rate is about the same as the flu. But I am not going to discuss all of that right now. What I am going to discuss is the ongoing, flagrant violation of the Constitution that is happening all over the United States.
One of my favorite movies is A Few Good Men. My friend Dave and I watched it many times in high school as we imagined our Mock Trial successes leading us to influential (and lucrative) law careers. In that film, Kevin Bacon’s character, the prosecutor, says, “These are the facts of the case. And they are undisputed.” My dreams of a career in law never came to fruition, but I am about to present the facts…and they are undisputed. When I get to the part where I share my opinion I will make that clear.
On Monday, March 23, Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, issued Executive Order Number 53 (2020). The very first part of the directive states this:
Effective 11:59 p.m., Tuesday, March 24, 2020 until 11:59 p.m., Thursday, April 23, 2020, all public and private in person gatherings of 10 or more individuals are prohibited.
Northam, when asked if churches could meet, said, “Any time that there’s a gathering of more than 10 people, we would certainly discourage that.” Discourage? That is not what the executive order says. The wording above is explicit: if there are more than ten people present, the gathering is prohibited. There is nowhere in the order that exempts churches or says anything about church services being discouraged. In fact, the end of the executive order says:
Violation of paragraphs 1, 3, 4, and 6 of this Order shall be a Class 1 misdemeanor pursuant to § 44-146.17 of the Code of Virginia.
The ban of public and private gatherings of more than ten individuals is in paragraph one. The order is remain in effect until it is “amended or rescinded by further executive order.” Therefore, Ralph Northam has declared that attending church services, if there are more than ten people present, is a crime.
Northam’s order, by the way, lists “essential retail businesses” that are exempt from the order and are allowed to remain open. Among them are lawn and garden equipment retailers and beer, wine and liquor stores.
Two days later, on March 25, Northam signed another executive order, this one ordering the postponement of elective surgeries due to COVID-19. The order did not, however, apply to abortions; those can continue.
In short, Ralph Northam has made it a crime to attend church but declared that liquor stores are essential businesses and abortion is essential surgery. I lived in Virginia for ten years; I have never been so glad I do not live there now.
Roy Cooper, the governor of North Carolina, issued an executive order in mid-March restricting mass gatherings to less than one hundred people. On March 23 he issued a new order, Executive Order No. 120, restricting such gatherings to less than fifty people (after twenty paragraphs trying to justify his decision that all began with “Whereas”). Four days later, on March 27, he issued Executive Order No. 121, ordering all individuals in the state to stay at home other than for exceptions granted in the order. Wisely, Cooper included travel to and from places of worship as permissible travel, but he later specified that religious gatherings, including funerals, are subject to the limitations on gatherings listed later in the order. What is that limit? Ten people in a single room or space at the same time. Oh, and the provisions of that limitation will be enforced by state and local law enforcement, with violations punishable as a Class 2 misdemeanor.
Eric Holcomb, the governor of Indiana, issued Executive Order 20-08, a Stay at Home order. It states, “All businesses and operations in the State of Indiana, except for Essential Businesses and Operations, are hereby required to cease all activities within the State” except for minimum operations. It bans all public and private gatherings of any number of people outside of a single family home, and any gathering of more than ten people is prohibited unless exempted. Religious gatherings were exempted “provided they adhere to the CDC’s guidance on social gatherings.” Of course, that doesn’t help a whole lot, because the CDC’s guideline says that if there is minimal-to-moderate community transmission, gatherings up to 250 people are okay, but “the cutoff threshold is at the discretion of community leadership.” The CDC’s recommendation to cancel is only applicable if there is “a substantial level of community transmission.” This is the equivalent of a child asking mom for permission to go to a party, mom says, “My answer is no, but ask your father.” Dad then says, “I don’t see a problem with it, but you have to listen to your mom.” So, Eric Holcomb creatively made it a crime to attend church. He can point to the order to say that he didn’t, but in reality, he did. And the order is enforceable by state and local law enforcement.
Governor Tim Walz of Minnesota, issued Executive Order 20-20 in which he ordered that “all persons currently living within the State of Minnesota are ordered to stay at home or in their place of residence except to engage in the Activities and Critical Sector work set forth below.” The only allowance made for religious activities was for “officials, workers, and leaders in houses of worship and other places of religious expression or fellowship, wherever their services may be needed. This category also includes workers necessary to plan, record, and distribute online or broadcast content to community members.” In his order, Walz urged Minnesotans to “voluntarily comply” but added that “a person who willfully violates this Executive Order is guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction must be punished by a fine not to exceed $1,000 or by imprisonment for not more than 90 days.”
I could keep going, because it is certainly not just these four governors that have signed executive orders like these. If I go through every example, though, most readers will lose interest and miss the point I am endeavoring to make. To make that point, I am going to focus in particular on the orders signed by Tim Walz in Minnesota and Ralph Northam in Virginia. But before I do, it is necessary to look first at the United States Constitution.
The First Amendment reads,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
I am sure you noticed that there is no exception given. There is no caveat. No asterisk. No escape clause. Congress cannot make a law that prohibits the free exercise of religion or the peaceable assembly of “the people.” You can read through Articles I and II of the Constitution if you would like, but you will find nothing there giving either the Congress or the President any authority to violate the First Amendment. There is, therefore, no constitutional authority for the federal government to restrict peaceable assemblies or to prohibit the free exercise of religion.
More than any of the other executive orders cited here, Tim Walz relies heavily on the recommendations and actions of the federal government to justify his order. “This Executive Order is consistent with a growing nationwide effort to contain the spread of COVID-19,” the first full paragraph on page two begins. He cites President Donald Trump’s March 16 guidelines to limit gatherings to not more than ten people and points out that as of March 24, “twenty-four states representing almost 200 million Americans have issued orders or public health directives closing non-essential businesses or limiting residents from participating in non-essential activities.” You have to give Walz credit for his efforts to legitimize his order, but there is a significant problem. Neither President Trump nor any of those twenty-two states have the authority to do what Walz is claiming validates his actions. To say that because twenty-two states have issued similar orders is about as valuable as telling a police officer who has pulled you over for speeding that everyone else is doing it. Neither popularity nor commonality equal legality.
Walz references President Trump and he even correctly states that the president issued guidelines. It is true that those guidelines say “avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people. But a guideline is not a law. A guideline cannot carry a legal penalty. A guideline is, by definition, “a general rule, principle, or piece of advice.” Synonyms for “guideline” include recommendation, suggestion and advice. Regardless of what you think of President Trump, he has, thus far, recognized that he cannot violate the Constitution—even for what some might claim is the best interest of the country.
Walz’s order says that “practicing social distancing at all times” is “required to mitigate the community spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota and nationwide.” The italics are mine, but those are important words, because they leave no wiggle room. There is no exception to “all times” and no exception to “required.”
Walz also cites the Department of Homeland Security’s Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce: Ensuring Community and National Resilience in COVID-19 Response, issued on March 23. That’s all well and good, but if you check that guidance you will find that it says, in bold print, “This list is advisory in nature. It is not, nor should it be considered, a federal directive or standard.” Why is it only advisory in nature? Because the Department of Homeland Security is a federal agency and no federal agency can violate constitutional rights. Furthermore, this guidance is designed to prevent state and local governments from shutting down work that is absolutely essential for national security and other necessary infrastructure.
Walz’s order cites Minnesota Statutes 2019, section 12.21, subdivision 1, as giving him the authority to “control the state’s emergency management as well as carry out the provisions of Minnesota’s Emergency Management Act.” Here’s the rub, though: that statute only gives the governor such authority when there is “a national security emergency,” when there is “an energy supply emergency,” or “during the existence of an emergency resulting from an incident at a nuclear power plant that poses a radiological or other health hazard.” None of those apply to the COVID-19 situation.
Minnesota Statutes 2019, section 12.21, subdivision 2 allows the governor to declare a peacetime emergency. The only allowance for such a declaration that fits with COVID-19 is if the virus is considered an “act of nature.” That could be debated, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. The emergency also has to be one that “endangers life and property and local government resources are inadequate to handle the situation.” Well, the virus does endanger life, but are the local resources inadequate? That could be debated too, since the actual numbers are no where near the projections, but again, let’s given him the benefit of the doubt.
This is where it becomes necessary to look at the Minnesota Constitution. It includes a right to free exercise of religion but, interestingly, it also includes a caveat. Here is how Section 16 reads:
The enumeration of rights in this constitution shall not deny or impair others retained by and inherent in the people. The right of every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience shall never be infringed; nor shall any man be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any religious or ecclesiastical ministry, against his consent; nor shall any control of or interference with the rights of conscience be permitted, or any preference be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of the state, nor shall any money be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious societies or religious or theological seminaries.
Here is why it is interesting. First, it contradicts itself. Notice that it says that the right to worship God “shall never be infringed” but then later says the this right “shall not be so construed as to excuse acts… inconsistent with the peace or safety of the state.” So, in Minnesota, your freedom of religion cannot never be violated…except when it can. Second, it violates the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Or does it? The Tenth Amendment is an important one, especially for those who favor a limited federal government. It says,
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
We have already seen that the Congress does not have the power to infringe upon the free practice of religion; the First Amendment says that in no uncertain terms. But unless the Constitution prohibits states from doing so, does the Tenth Amendment mean that states can infringe upon that right? Yes, that is what it would mean…but for the fact that Constitution does prohibit states from doing so. Specifically, in the Fourteenth Amendment. It reads, in part:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Legal scholars call this the incorporation doctrine, and acknowledge that prior to its ratification in July 1868, the Bill of Rights only applied to the federal government. In the 1934 case Hamilton v. Regents of the University of California, the Supreme Court’s decision states, in part, “There need be no attempt to enumerate or comprehensively to define what is included in the ‘liberty’ protected by the due process clause.” In his concurring opinion for that case, Justice Cardozo said, “I assume for present purposes that the religious liberty protected by the First Amendment against invasion by the nation is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment against invasion by the states.”
In the 1940 case Cantwell v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court’s ruling stated, “The fundamental concept of liberty embodied in that Amendment embraces the liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment.” The decision also states,
The First Amendment declares that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Fourteenth Amendment has rendered the legislatures of the states as incompetent as Congress to enact such laws.
Incompetent here does not mean that the state legislatures do not know how to; it means what that word literally means—that they are not able to. And they are not able to because the Constitution prohibits it. The decision goes to say,
Freedom of conscience and freedom to adhere to such religious organization or form of worship as the individual may choose cannot be restricted by law. … it safeguards the free exercise of the chosen form of religion.
The Cantwell decision also states that while the freedom to believe is absolute, the freedom to act is not. “Conduct remains subject to regulation for the protection of society,” the decision says. If there is any justification for the government—state or federal—to infringe upon the free exercise of religion, this is where such exceptions would be found. The decision, then, is vital to understanding this entire situation.
Before looking at what the decision says, it is worth noting the details of the case. Newton Cantwell and his two sons, who were Jehovah’s Witnesses, were arrested and charged with violating Connecticut law. The three men had been going house to house, peddling books and tracts and soliciting financial donations. One of the books, entitled Enemies, attacked the Catholic faith—and 90% of the residents in the neighborhood where the Cantwells were arrested were Catholic. The statute the Cantwells were accused of violating read,
No person shall solicit money, services, subscriptions or any valuable thing for any alleged religious, charitable or philanthropic cause, from other than a member of the organization for whose benefit such person is soliciting or within the county in which such person or organization is located unless such cause shall have been approved by the secretary of the public welfare council.
The Cantwells claimed that their actions were not within the statute because they were only distributing printed material. However, the trial court found that,
in addition to the sale of the books and the distribution of the pamphlets, the defendants were also soliciting contributions or donations of money for an alleged religious cause, and thereby came within the purview of the statute.
That court claimed that it was not the free exercise of their religion that prompted the charges against the Cantwells, but their solicitation of funds. The court also held that the statute was legal, since it was “an effort by the State to protect the public against fraud and imposition in the solicitation of funds for what purported to be religious, charitable, or philanthropic causes.”
Now, with that understanding, what the Supreme Court say were justifiable exemptions to the absolute right of religious freedom?
The freedom to act must have appropriate definition to preserve the enforcement of that protection. In every case, the power to regulate must be so exercised as not, in attaining a permissible end, unduly to infringe the protected freedom. No one would contest the proposition that a State may not, by statute, wholly deny the right to preach or to disseminate religious views. Plainly, such a previous and absolute restraint would violate the terms of the guarantee.
If this were the extent of the ruling, it would leave orders banning religious gatherings on tenuous ground. Protecting the health of the public may be a “permissible end,” and since livestreaming and other means of preaching or disseminating religious views are still available, one could argue that banning in-person church gatherings is permitted per the Cantwell decision. That ignores the caveat, though, that such regulations must not “unduly…infringe upon the protected freedom.” One could argue that prohibiting the in-person gathering of religious groups does unduly infringe—especially for adherents to the Bible, which includes the instruction not to give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25).
This was not, however, the extent of the ruling. It continued,
It is equally clear that a State may, by general and nondiscriminatory legislation, regulate the times, the places, and the manner of soliciting upon its streets, and of holding meetings thereon, and may in other respects safeguard the peace, good order, and comfort of the community without unconstitutionally invading the liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Most of this is not applicable to the current situation, because I am not discussing solicitation or meeting occurring on public streets. The permission given here for “other respects” is confined to safeguarding the “peace, good order, and comfort of the community.” It would have to be successfully argued, then, that prohibiting religious gatherings is a justifiable prohibition for the government to enact and enforce in order to safeguard those things. Church gatherings ted to prompt peace, so that’s out. Good order and comfort could, arguably, apply to the COVID-19 situation, but again, the successful argument that violating the First Amendment is justified has not been made by anyone that I have seen.
The decision later asserts,
Even the exercise of religion may be at some slight inconvenience in order that the State may protect its citizens from injury.
But the “injury” here is not physical injury or physical health. It refers to the injury of fraud. That is made clear in the decision. And later, the decision states that part of Cantwell’s conviction is to be set aside because the state’s interests did not outweigh Cantwell’s. Specifically,
The fundamental law declares the interest of the United States that the free exercise of religion be not prohibited and that freedom to communicate information and opinion be not abridged. The State of Connecticut has an obvious interest in the preservation and protection of peace and good order within her borders. We must determine whether the alleged protection of the State’s interest … has been pressed, in this instance, to a point where it has come into fatal collision with the overriding interest protected by the federal compact.
So, here’s the conclusion of the matter:
When clear and present danger of riot, disorder, interference with traffic upon the public streets, or other immediate threat to public safety, peace, or order appears, the power of the State to prevent or punish is obvious. Equally obvious is it that a State may not unduly suppress free communication of views, religious or other, under the guise of conserving desirable conditions.
What does all that mean? For the purposes of this discussion, it means that states can only ban religious gatherings of more than ten people if they can prove that allowing such gatherings poses an immediate threat to public safety. To ban them only “under the guise of conserving desirable conditions” is not permissible. It is, in short, unconstitutional. To wit, the Cantwell decision continues,
[T]he people of this nation have ordained, in the light of history, that, in spite of the probability of excesses and abuses, these liberties are, in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of the citizens of a democracy.
The essential characteristic of these liberties is that, under their shield, many types of life, character, opinion and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed. Nowhere is this shield more necessary than in our own country, for a people composed of many races and of many creeds. There are limits to the exercise of these liberties. The danger in these times from the coercive activities of those who in the delusion of racial or religious conceit would incite violence and breaches of the peace in order to deprive others of their equal right to the exercise of their liberties, is emphasized by events familiar to all. These and other transgressions of those limits the States appropriately may punish.
I realize that this is getting quite lengthy, but I want to also point out DeJonge v. Oregon, a 1937 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the state cannot violate the freedom of assembly even if the what is said at such a meeting violates the freedom of speech by inciting violence.
If the persons assembling have committed crimes elsewhere, if they have formed or are engaged in a conspiracy against the public peace and order, they may be prosecuted for their conspiracy or other violation of valid laws. But it is a different matter when the State, instead of prosecuting them for such offenses, seizes upon mere participation in a peaceable assembly and a lawful public discussion as the basis for a criminal charge.
The decision was, then, that abuses themselves could be dealt with by the state, but the freedom of assembly could not be curtailed. For COVID-19, then, this means that if a church were to engage in activity that would knowingly cause or contribute to the spread of the virus, there may be consequences for that—but that fact that a religious gathering might contribute to the spread of the virus cannot be used to violate the freedom of assembly. Government, put simply, cannot punish people, or curtail their rights, for something that they might do.
Now, what about Ralph Northam’s executive order?
Well, Northam, too, tries to manipulate the CDC recommendations to serve his own ends. His order reads, in part,
Guidance on School Closures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that medium term closures (8-20 weeks) have greater impact on minimizing the spread of COVID-19 than shorter term closures (2-8 weeks).
That is true, but only partially true. First of all, the CDC defines medium-term closure as 4 weeks. A closure of 8-20 weeks is classified as long-term. The CDC’s guidelines for school closure say that closures of 8-20 weeks have a greater impact on stemming spread based on “[m]odeling data for other respiratory infections where children have higher disease impacts….” No doctor anywhere has suggested that children have a high disease impact with COVID-19. Just the opposite, in fact.
Furthermore, the CDC’s guidelines say that long-term closure is likely to increase the amount of student congregating outside of school, which is also problematic, since such gatherings…
Will increase risk to older adults or those with co-morbidities, as almost 40% of US grandparents provide childcare for grandchildren. School closures will likely increase this percentage.
Plenty of other health care organizations and officials have echoed the probability that students are safer going to school than staying home. But I am getting sidetracked, as my primary focus here is the lack of governmental authority to prohibit religious gatherings.
Northam cites Article V, Section 7 of the Constitution of Virginia as the authority for his order, but if you read Article V, Section 7 you will find absolutely nothing even remotely related to Northam’s order. Even a creative reading of the section would leave you stumped trying make a connection. But Northam also cites § 44-146.17 of the Code of Virginia as authority, so what about that?
Well, at least this one has some semblance of relevance, as it deals with emergencies and disasters. And it does seem, at first, to allow Northam to do what he has done, as it reads, in part,
Executive orders, to include those declaring a state of emergency and directing evacuation, shall have the force and effect of law and the violation thereof shall be punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor in every case where the executive order declares that its violation shall have such force and effect.
Such executive orders declaring a state of emergency may address exceptional circumstances that exist relating to an order of quarantine or an order of isolation concerning a communicable disease of public health threat that is issued by the State Health Commissioner for an affected area of the Commonwealth.
But what else does Virginia law say? The Code of Virginia, in § 32.1-48.05, says,
Upon a determination by the State Health Commissioner that exceptional circumstances exist relating to one or more persons in the Commonwealth who are known to have been exposed to or infected with or reasonably suspected to have been exposed to or infected with a communicable disease of public health threat…the State Health Commissioner may invoke the provisions of this article relating to quarantine and isolation.
But how are quarantine and isolation defined? One need only look to § 32.1-48.06 to find out:
“Isolation” means the physical separation, including confinement or restriction of movement, of an individual or individuals who are infected with or are reasonably suspected to be infected with a communicable disease of public health threat in order to prevent or limit the transmission of the communicable disease of public health threat to other uninfected and unexposed individuals.
“Quarantine” means the physical separation, including confinement or restriction of movement, of an individual or individuals who are present within an affected area, as defined herein, or who are known to have been exposed or may reasonably be suspected to have been exposed to a communicable disease of public health threat and who do not yet show signs or symptoms of infection with the communicable disease of public health threat in order to prevent or limit the transmission of the communicable disease of public health threat to other unexposed and uninfected individuals.
Notice that isolation requires infection, or reasonable suspicion of infection, and quarantine requires known or reasonably suspected exposure to the communicable disease or location within an affected area. Northam, like so many others, is declaring his entire state to be an affected area. The code, however, clearly indicates the existence of unexposed and uninfected individuals. The next part of the code says, “Any quarantined persons shall be confined separately from any isolated persons, to the maximum extent practicable.” That does not seem to allow for state-wide quarantining. Furthermore, it says, “Any quarantined or isolated persons shall be immediately released from quarantine or isolation upon a determination by the State Health Commissioner that such quarantined or isolated persons pose no risk of transmitting the communicable disease of public health threat to other persons.” That would mean that even if state-wide quarantining is permissible, the state would be required to test every person in the state in order to determine whether or not they pose a risk of transmitting the disease.
The code goes further. Specifically,
In the case of any person who has been quarantined or isolated in a location other than a medical care facility, the State Health Commissioner shall authorize health care professionals to enter the premises of quarantine or isolation. No person, other than such authorized health care professionals, shall enter the premises of quarantine or isolation, unless authorized by the State Health Commissioner.
If you this section is applied literally, if the entire state is quarantined, no one other than a health care professional is allowed to enter the state, or any area of the state, unless the State Health Commissioner gives authorization for them to do so. I am guessing that the commissioner has not issued 8.5 million such authorizations.
The code also says that anyone in Virginia subject to a quarantine order can appeal it by filing a petition for an appeal and serving it to the State Health Commissioner or his legal representative. Any such appeal is to be heard within 48 hours. Of course, precisely because he does not have the authority to order a state-wide quarantine or isolation, and he no doubt is not interested in dealing with appeals, Northam has not used the words “isolation” or “quarantine” in his executive order.
The Virginia Code includes a great deal about isolation and quarantine. It even includes, in § 32.1-48.017, the authority for the State Health Commissioner to require the use of a public or private building to implement orders of quarantine or isolation. What it does not anywhere include is the authority of the governor or the State Health Commissioner to prohibit the use of public or private buildings for any reason, and certainly not for religious gatherings.
Virginia’s constitution includes a Bill of Rights, and Section 16 deals with religion. That section includes this glorious run-on sentence:
That religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion , according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other. No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
By prohibiting public and private gatherings of more than ten people, and not making an exception for religious gatherings, Ralph Northam is violating the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
I am by no means the first person to address the questionable constitutionality of so many executive orders stemming from COVID-19, specifically when it comes to banning religious gatherings. But many of the others dealing with this issue are concluding that the states do have the right to ban them. Damon Root, writing for Reason, for example, says that “the Supreme Court has also said that religious liberty does not trump all forms of government regulation, even when the regulation clearly impacts a specific religious practice.” In support of that assertion he cites Justice Scalia’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990). In that decision, Scalia said the use of peyote as part of a Native American church ceremony was not protected in so far as that when its use resulted in a failed drug test the state could still withhold public benefits from the individuals who failed the tests. In his decision, Scalia wrote, “We have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate.” That is exactly the point, though; the state is not free to regulate religion or the free exercise of religion. Root suggests that because the bans on mass gatherings apply across the board and not only to religious gatherings, “they would therefore likely pass muster under Employment Division v. Smith.” I disagree wholeheartedly, and I feel rather confident that Justice Scalia would too if he were still here for us to ask him.
David French, writing for The Dispatch, says that the “underlying statutory structure is complex and varied at the federal, state, and local levels, but the relevant constitutional principles are relatively simple, they make sense, and they’ve been understood and applied since the nation’s founding to safeguard public health.” States, French says,
possess a general police power—an inherent authority that is then limited by both the state and federal Constitution. A governor or state legislature can often act without a specific grant of power. The power to act is presumed, absent a specific limitation.
Ahem. I believe we have clearly established that there is a specific limitation. It is in the First Amendment, extended to the states in the Fourteenth Amendment, and it exists in state constitutions.
French also asserts that “the Supreme Court observed in Gibbons v. Ogden that sovereign state authority includes the authority to enact ‘quarantine laws’ and ‘health laws of every description.’” That is true, but is taken out of context. That 1824 case dealt with the regulation of navigation and commerce and the differentiation of state and federal powers when it comes to such regulation. “State inspection laws, health laws, and laws for regulating the internal commerce of a State, and those which respect turnpike roads, ferries, &c. are not within the power granted to Congress,” the decision says. The entire focus of the case deals with competing steamboat licenses possessed by Ogden and
Gibbons, one granted by New York and the other granted by Congress. The case is important both for confirming congressional authority over interstate commerce and for confirming that federal law trumps state law. But if we could get Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion I am quite confident that he would say that nothing in his opinion was intended to relate in any way to the COVID-19 fiasco.
French also quotes Jay Cost of the American Enterprise Institute, who tweeted that “a state legislature has ‘the sovereign power to make you go home if you are a menace to “public health.”’” I agree with that, but it would necessitate confirming that someone is indeed a menace to public health. French, too, quotes Employment Division v. Smith and says that the executive orders would not violate the neutral law of general applicability since they limit gatherings not only in churches but also in restaurants, bars, theaters, etc. In fact, French goes so far as to state that
Even laws that directly curtail First Amendment freedoms will be upheld if they can pass a legal test called “strict scrutiny,” which requires the government to demonstrate that its actions advance a compelling governmental interest and are enacted through the least restrictive legal means.
This is where differences of opinion and legal interpretation come into play. French says churches get no special treatment or consideration because the ban on gatherings is neutral. I say the ban on gatherings is itself a violation, but that churches are entitled to special consideration because the freedom of religion is so sacrosanct. French says the orders would pass any test questioning whether or not the least restrictive means were utilized. I disagree. According to French,
At present, that test would be easy to pass. There is unquestionably a compelling governmental interest in protecting the public from COVID-19, a communicable disease far deadlier than the flu. Because it is so easily transmitted through person-to-person contact, it’s easy to argue that even broad bans on public gatherings are among the least restrictive means of advancing the government’s interest.
Again, I disagree. To say that such an argument could be made so easily is to ignore the fact that some states, and other countries, have not implemented such draconian measures, to say nothing of the fact that they are not even consistent with the recommendations of the CDC.
John Inazu, a professor of law and religion at Washington University, wrote an article on this subject in The Atlantic. In it, he writes,
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that a church challenging a shutdown order would receive the highest level of legal protection, a test referred to by courts as “strict scrutiny.” Under this test, the government would need to articulate a compelling interest, and its directive would need to be narrowly tailored and executed in the least restrictive means toward accomplishing its interest. That’s a very high standard, and one that is not usually satisfied. But the government is likely to meet it here. The widespread protection of human life is clearly a compelling government interest, and in the specific circumstances of this crisis, given what we know now of the virus, a shutdown order, especially one aimed at gatherings over a certain size, is both narrowly tailored and the least restrictive means.
You will not be surprised to learn that I disagree. First, a shutdown order prohibiting gatherings over ten people is not narrowly tailored. Second, if the protection of human life is a “clearly a compelling government interest” that justifies shut down orders, then any and every state government should be allowed to shut down abortion providers permanently. Instead, we have Ralph Northam calling them essential. The Atlantic tends to be incredibly liberal, but Inazu’s article is thoughtful and reasonable. I just do not agree with his conclusion.
I do not think that the ban on religious gatherings is the only unconstitutional thing happening right now, but I have chosen to keep that my focus here. Churches should absolutely consider not having in-person services during this time, and churches should consider guidelines from government and health professionals. But the government cannot force churches not to meet. If we make exceptions now, for this crisis, we will putting ourselves into a precarious position from which we may never recover.
Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, issued Executive Order 2020-21, instituting a “Temporary requirement to suspend activities that are not necessary to sustain or protect life.” Part of that order stated that, outside of exceptions given, “all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring among persons not part of a single household are prohibited.” It is effective from March 24 to April 13 and “a willful violation of this order is a misdemeanor.” However, her order includes an exception:
Nothing in this order should be taken to supersede another executive order or directive that is in effect, except to the extent this order imposes more stringent limitations on in-person work, activities, and interactions. Consistent with prior guidance, a place of religious worship, when used for religious worship, is not subject to penalty under section 14.
In an appearance today on FOX News Sunday, Gov. Whitmer said, “That’s an area we don’t have the ability to directly enforce or control.” Michigan’s Speaker of the House, Lee Chatfield, said on Facebook,
People have a God-given right to assemble and worship, and that right is secured by both the United States and Michigan Constitution. While I do not think that that right can be taken away by an Executive Order, I believe that as Christians we also have a duty to love our fellow man and play our role within society. My recommendation is to find ways that you can abide within the order to the best of your ability.
Whitmer and Chatfield have it right. Michigan is not the only state that has it right, but there are far more that do not than there are that do. If you live in the United States, check carefully the orders being issued by your governor. I am no fan of Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, but I do admire him for saying, on March 26, regarding the shut down in New York,
If you rethought that or had time to analyze that public health strategy, I don’t know that you would say quarantine everyone. I don’t even know that that was the best public health policy. Young people then quarantined with older people was probably not the best public health strategy because the younger people could have been exposing the older people to an infection.
That’s an admission we seldom hear from elected officials. The COVID-19 virus is real. Common sense, appropriate precautions should be taken.
Andrew Napolitano, writing in The Washington Times, eviscerated all of the executive orders that are sprouting up and urged Americans to push back.
These decrees — issued by those who have no legal authority to issue them, enforced by cops who hate what they are being made to do, destructive of the freedoms that our forbearers shed oceans of blood to preserve and crushing economic prosperity by violating the laws of supply and demand — should all be rejected by an outraged populace, and challenged in court.
I couldn’t agree more.
Ralph Northam photo credit: Mark Warner / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
Supreme Court photo credit: Mr. Kjetil Ree. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
John Marshall photo credit: U.S. Department of State from United States / Public domain
Gretchen Whitmer photo credit: 1st Lt. Andrew Layton, U.S. Air National Guard / Public domain