I realize that some people considered my post about the unconstitutionality of government restrictions on gatherings to be alarmist. We are in the midst of an unusual situation that calls for unusual measures in order to save lives, after all. Before I go on, let me clarify that at no time did I intend to suggest that all recommendations and guidelines should be ignored or that COVID-19 is a farce. I understand that the virus is real, I understand that there may be need for precautions and even extraordinary steps to be taken. At the same time, please realize that there are real, informed and legitimate differences of opinion on what those steps should be. Even more importantly, please realize that someone—namely, at the moment, me—can simultaneously value life, acknowledge the threat that is COVID-19 and still believe that the Constitution should not be violated. I happen to believe that constitutional protections are there for a reason and need to be protected even when they are most inconvenient.
When I posted Unconstitutional Limitations I actually hoped that my concerns were a bit overwrought…that the restrictions on group gatherings, and thus on religious gatherings, was going to be the extreme end of end of government violations of the Constitution. I hoped that we would make it through COVID-19 and then, as cooler heads prevailed, people would look back and realize that the actions taken during the scare were not okay and could not be permitted to happen again. Sadly, I was wrong.
In the past week, there have been more, and more egregious, examples of government overreach and constitutional violation by state and local governments. President Trump still seems to realize the constitutional limitations on the federal government and has even expressed them in explaining why he is not issuing a national stay-at-home order. Just yesterday, at his White House briefing, CNN’s Jeremy Diamond asked President Trump why he is not following the recommendations of Dr. Fauci and others and issuing such an order. “We have a thing called the Constitution, which I cherish, number one,” was Trump’s response. He did not stop there, though. He continued, regarding the eight governors that have not issued state-wide stay-at-home orders, “Number two, those governors, I know every one of them, they’re doing a great job. They’re being very, very successful with what they’re doing. And, as you know, I want governors to be running things. In some cases, we’ll supersede.” That is called federalism, and that is exactly how the United States is supposed to operate.
My own state’s governor, Kristi Noem, is one of those that has not issued such an order. When asked why, she said, “South Dakota is not New York City. The calls to apply for a one-size-fits-all approach to this problem is herd mentality. It’s not leadership.” She expressed her respect for the Constitution, and then said, “The people themselves are primarily responsible for their safety. They are the ones that are entrusted with expansive freedoms. They’re free to exercise their rights to work, to worship, and to play. Or to even stay at home, or to conduct social distancing.” It is indeed a sad day when it is newsworthy and even controversial for a governor to say that the people have been entrusted with “expansive freedoms” and are responsible for the how the utilize those freedoms.
Last Monday, Rodney Howard-Browne, the pastor of The River at Tampa Bay church, was arrested for “‘intentionally and repeatedly’ defying emergency orders mandating that people maintain social distance and stay at home,” according to the New York Times. The Hillsborough County sheriff announced that he had the arrest warrant and Howard-Browne turned himself in. He was freed less than an hour later after posting bond. The sheriff, Chad Chronister, said this regarding the arrest:
His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger. Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshiping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first.
As best I can tell from a very cursory exploration of The River at Tampa Bay’s web site, I do not agree with a lot of what they teach and practice. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that a pastor was arrested for exercising his constitutionally-granted rights to religion and assembly.
The good news is that the Hillsborough County Council recognized the dangerous ground upon which their sheriff had tread and voted on April 2 to reverse its order and recognize churches as essential. The mayor wanted to impose ten-person limits and six-foot distancing requirements on churches by the Council overruled her recommendation. Also, on April 1, Florida governor Ron DeSantis issued Executive Order 20-92, amending 20-91, and declaring religious worship as an “essential activity.” DeSantis said, “I don’t think the government has the authority to close a church. I’m certainly not going to do that.” Governor Greg Abbott issued a similar executive order on March 31, GA 14, which includes “religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship” as essential services. According to an article in The Guardian, Delaware, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Tennessee and West Virginia have also issued exemptions for religious gatherings and, as mentioned in the previous post, Michigan has exempted them, as well.
Robin Fretwell Wilson, Brian Smith and Tanner Bean authored the essay “Defiant Congregations in a Pandemic: Public Safety Precedes Religious Rights,” which can be found on the web site of the Canopy Forum. “Now is not the time to stand on our rights. It is not the time to pursue contentious religious freedom claims in the courthouse. Instead, it is a time to lead by example, as so many congregations and people of faith have done,” they wrote. I have to disagree. Congregations need to prayerfully and carefully consider whether or not to meet in person, and I am by no means recommending that all churches decide to do so. But it is absolutely the time to stand on our rights. It may not be the best time to file “contentious religious freedom claims in the courthouse” but if it comes to that then yes, such action should be taken. Hopefully, that is not likely to happen. Hillsborough County was facing a lawsuit over its arrest of Howard-Browne, and it chose to back down.
Some leaders, though, may choose to push the matter, and if they do, laying down and allowing our constitutional rights to be trampled is not what anyone should do. On
March 27, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said of churches and synagogues, “[Law enforcement] will inform them they need to stop the services and disperse. If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.” Permanently. Jeremy Dys of First Liberty Institute said, “The American people will tolerate a lot during a time of a national pandemic. They will not tolerate government threats to permanently close Houses of Worship.” Ken Ham, founder and president of Answers in Genesis, tweeted, “It’s a warning for the future when one person claims they have the power to close churches permanently. That’s what we’ve seen in China & Cuba.”
Thankfully, the backlash against de Blasio was swift. Kristen Waggoner, of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote an editorial for the New York Daily News entitled “Sorry, mayor, you can’t close churches permanently: De Blasio’s wild overreaction to houses of worship that buck social distancing.” News outlets all over the country reported on the threat and most of the stories included the remarks in opposition and even explanation as to why de Blasio could do no such thing.
There are other examples of government overreach this past week, too. They do not relate to religious freedom specifically, but they should be as alarming to anyone who loves the Constitution. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York said in his April 3 briefing,
I’m going to sign an executive order that says the state can take ventilators and PPE from institutions that don’t need them now and redeploy them to other parts of the state and other hospitals that do need them. Those institutions will either get their ventilator back or they will be reimbursed and paid for their ventilator so they can buy a new ventilator.
The Wall Street Journal was incredibly kind to Cuomo in its report on his briefing, headlining its story, “New York State to Shift Ventilators to Hospitals in Need.” Thankfully, the sub-heading was more accurate, reading, “Gov. Cuomo to sign order allowing state to take unused ventilators, masks from institutions.” Bob Lonsberry, of Syracuse’s 570 WSYR radio station ripped Cuomo’s announcement; his post started this way:
You’ve been triaged, upstate New York.
The governor put the black tag around your neck.
Some will live and some will die and, well, you don’t get to live.
That’s what Andy Cuomo’s decree of Friday means. Your ventilators go to his voters and when you get the COVID, well, good luck to you. If all goes well, your family can have a memorial service in a year or two, after the Chinese sell us the vaccine.
Maybe you think that’s an overreaction, but I imagine that if someone was promising to confiscate the ventilators from your local hospital you would be upset too.
And in Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti encouraged Angelenos to snitch on anyone violating his Safer at Home order. At his March 31 briefing he said,
If any non-essential businesses continue to operate in violation of the stay at home order, we’re going to act to enforce the safer at home order and ensure their compliance. You know the old expression about snitches. Well, in this case, snitches get rewards.
He later said, “We want to thank you for turning folks in and making sure we are all safe.”
I don’t know what the rewards are, and I don’t want to know. What I do know is, encouraging people to spy on and report their neighbors sounds an awful lot like the U.S.S.R. I simply cannot imagine that that is the United States of America that anyone really wants to live in.
Shredded Constitution photo credit: Shutterstock.
Kristi Noem photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Public Domain .
Bill de Blasio photo credit: By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America – Bill de Blasio, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81675099
Andrew Cuomo photo credit: By Delta News Hub – Flickr.com, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88545211
Eric Garcetti photo credit: By Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America – Eric Garcetti, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87271081