April 14, 2020

Church vs. State in the Time of China Virus

Several state and local officials have acted to unconstitutionally limit people’s rights.

This past Sunday was Easter, one of the biggest days on the calendar for Christians, who under normal circumstance would have gathered in large numbers to celebrate Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the grave. But the China Virus understandably threw a wrench in the works, as Americans everywhere have had their lives upended by state and local stay-at-home orders and closures of “nonessential” businesses.

While most folks have complied and understand the seriousness of this pandemic, there are always cases of people disregarding the warnings. Such is the messy reality of a nation established upon the principle of Liberty. At times, tensions will arise between the concerns and needs of the society at large versus the concerns and needs of the individual. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were designed as a means to delineate those boundaries and to protect individual rights from violation by other individuals or, more particularly, those with governing power.

Back to Easter Sunday. While the vast majority of Christians and churches have followed the recommendations of state and local authorities to avoid large gatherings and have either closed or implemented online church services, several state and local officials, ostensibly out of fear that masses of Christians would break quarantine and risk spreading COVID-19, overstepped their authority and crossed the Constitution.

One example out of Kentucky serves to highlight the issue. Last week, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer ordered a ban on all “drive-thru” church meetings. He stated, “If you are a church or you are a churchgoing member and you do that, you’re in violation of the mandate from the governor. You’re in violation of the request from my office and city government not to do that. … We’re saying no church worshiping, no drive-thus.” Fischer further threatened that police would record license plates of anyone seen at a drive-thru church service, track down violators, and enforce strict quarantines upon them.

For perspective, these drive-thru church services are essentially people gathering in their parked cars in a church parking lot — with their windows rolled up — in order to worship and listen to the pastor’s message via their car radio. They are not coming in direct contact with each other; they are not in danger of contracting or spreading the virus. For further context, Fischer has not forbidden people from parking in grocery-store parking lots while they enter to shop for needed supplies — touching what someone else touched, by the way.

Fortunately, U.S. District Court Judge Justin R. Walker struck down Fischer’s order, calling the mayor’s decision “stunning” and “beyond all reason, unconditional.” In issuing his ruling and opinion, Walker states, “On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter. That sentence is one that this Court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion. But two days ago, citing the need for social distancing during the current pandemic, Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer ordered Christians not to attend Sunday services, even if they remained in their cars to worship — and even though it’s Easter.” In his decision, Walker went on to pointedly note one of the primary founding principles and indeed reasons for the existence of our nation as enshrined in the First Amendment: religious liberty.

We hope Chattanooga Mayor Andy Burke, who issued a similar order to Fischer’s, has taken note.

One of the biggest dangers of state governors and local authorities overstepping their authority during this national crisis is that it sows greater distrust of government in the general public, and therefore less willingness by the public to heed government advice and instructions. As Nate Jackson observes, “When the government clearly doesn’t trust people to follow instructions, it issues excessive ones. Then the people don’t trust the government, and the cycle continues.” The eventual outcome will be a government aligned against the citizens rather than government upholding the rights of citizens.

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