Religious freedom and free exercise of religion are prominent in the First Amendment. Coronavirus response has, among other things brought on a very intense, national debate. Yes, people are continuing to discuss the wisdom of lockdowns.
The decision to shut down social and commercial activity in the name of health is itself arbitrary. The decision to decide what to shut down and what not to shut down is controversial. Then there is the more nuanced discussion of what activities are essential and what activities are not.
These decisions reflect values and priorities of the participants in the discussion. Little people are left to comply. Political types went about making decisions. In our increasingly secular society, this is posing enormous an enormous challenge for religious freedom.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley in Nevada failed in its attempt to get the Supreme Court to rein in Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s order. The governor’s order clamps down more severely on churches than on gambling casinos. One might rightfully point to the first amendment and scratch their head.
Nevada’s policy holds that restaurants, bars, casinos, and gyms can operate at 50% capacity. There’s no scientific basis supporting this. Houses of worship face a limit of a maximum of 50 people regardless of their capacity. There is no scientific basis for this either. Yes, the words arbitrary and capricious do come to mind. Still, in a 5-4 vote, the court refused injunctive relief for Calvary Chapel.
Justice Kavanaugh got to the heart of the matter in his dissent. Religious freedom and free exercise of religion have First Amendment protection.
“Nevada’s rules … reflect an implicit judgement that for-profit assemblies are important and religious gatherings are less so; that moneymaking is more important than faith during the pandemic.”
Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds
But rather than the fight being over, it is continuing and picking up steam. A few weeks ago, a federal district court judge ruled in favor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church. It made its complaint against Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser’s executive order. The Mayor’s order prohibits religious gatherings of over 100 people, indoors or outdoors. The church, in its complaint and request for relief, notes the mayor herself appears at and spoke at an outdoor gathering of “tens of thousands of people” in downtown Washington.
A federal district court judge in Colorado has just ruled in favor of two local churches. Their suit is challenging the state’s rules requiring masks and limiting the size of indoor gatherings. The judge found that the rules for religious institutions were more severe than for secular ones. Therefore, they are an unconstitutional infringement.
Then again a lawsuit filed by Orthodox Jews and Catholics in New York against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on indoor gatherings met with little success. There a federal district court judge ruling was in favor of the state.
Lockdowns present a test and challenge to the country’s values and principles. Our Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, is to protect individual freedom from intrusions by government on the rights of the individuals. We have protection from arbitrary violations. Religious freedom and free exercise of religion are important to western civilization.
And in the beginning they came for religious liberty
John Adams, used the phrase “a government of laws, not of men” to capture the idea that we should aspire to limit arbitrary exercise of power by men through government. But a government-mandated lockdown is all about politicians asserting enormous arbitrary power. America’s founding was by people seeking religious freedom.
Recall the famous sermon in 1630 by Puritan John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, one of the nation’s first colonies.
“For we must consider… that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and by-word through the world.”
But the religion, and the freedom to practice it, that was most important to Winthrop. The same was true for many of the founders of this country. It is least important to many people with political power making lockdown decisions today. We should reflect on this before moving forward. Religious freedom and free exercise of religion need our support and protection.
According to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, 36% of Americans attend religious services weekly. Legal challenges must continue everywhere constitutional protections for religious freedom and equal treatment are being violated. We must know life and religious freedom are what’s on the ballot in tomorrow’s election.