First Amendment: “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.”
While I do not criticize churches from closing physical meetings because of concerns about COVID-19, I am deeply concerned about churches closing their meetings in response to a Government mandate. Some Believers are passionate about their faith and God’s ability to protect them. Other ones may be skittish about contracting COVID-19. The skittish one and everyone with symptoms can remain at home. But when it comes to faith, the Government does not have to right to determine what measure of faith we have or how we should demonstrate that faith by mandating we cannot assemble.
Some lawyers opine, such as Richard Hammer of the Assemblies of God, that the churches must ignore their trust in God’s protection and close or face litigation and possibly forced closings by law enforcement. Other ones declare that it is a violation of the First Amendment. I agree with the latter group.
To even mandate that business should close there must be a provable compelling reason. There is a compelling reason to believe that the COVID-19 crisis is media-hyped and fear-driven. On paper, the stats and other essential information concerning COVID-19, do not add up to a crisis. Compared to a normal flu season, COPID-19 is not likely to affect a large number of people as the flu virus. In the majority of affected individuals, it has not proven any more deadly than the flu.
Furthermore, several esteemed medical professionals have stated that the COVID-19 virus is way overblown and the measures taken by the Government are extreme. Not only is our economy being shut down, which will have devastating consequences, but now a precedent is being set that the Government can override the First Amendment to compel churches to suspend meetings. Should the Government be given the precedence to exercise such a power over the First Amendment based on such a flimsy premise?
Consider that in Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered bars, nightclubs, restaurants, entertainment venues and gyms to close as a measure to flatten the curve of COVID-19. Garcetti also called on houses of worship to close, but he wisely did not mandate their compliance.
He said, “We have an incredible Constitution and a First Amendment, so while we can’t mandate that churches, mosques or synagogues close, please, we are asking you to close them.” – L. A. Times
Okay, churches could comply with that request without any danger to their First Amendment rights. However, one church recognized the danger of submitting to a mandate and chose to exercise their constitutional freedom to assemble.
In Louisiana, one pastor said that he believes COVID-19 is “politically motivated.” Therefore, he rejected the Governor’s mandate that services must be suspended. The church held a meeting on March 17 with hundreds of people attending. Although the police arrived and threatened that the National Guard would close them down, they held another meeting.
Woody Jenkins, a former Louisiana state legislator, supports the church’s right to assemble. Jenkins stated, “Our attitude is the First Amendment rights rise and fall together: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press.”
Clay Higgins, a U.S. Congressman from Louisiana, sent a letter to the Governor declaring that his mandate on church gatherings is unconstitutional.
“I agree that all our constituents and religious leaders should follow the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC),” Higgins wrote. “However, the decision to gather should be the choice of the individual or institution and not a mandate by any government entity. The state has no authority to enforce this proclamation nor any ban on worship.” – Lester Duhe, KLAB online, Posted: Tue 11:53 PM, Mar 17, 2020
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday issued an executive order prohibiting all gatherings of more than 250 people, including religious meetings. Rep. Beau LaFave responded that the order is a violation of the First Amendment right to assemble and free exercise of religion LaFave said that the violation that amounted to throwing constitutional rights “out the window.”
“I will always be the first person to agree with Gov. Whitmer that the state should take pro-active, sound measures to prevent the spread of any illness,” he said. “However, we must take action that is not in violation of the Constitution.” – Beth LeBlanc, The Detroit News Published 12:03 p.m. ET March 13, 2020
Attorney Otten Johnson opined that based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Perry Education Association v. Perry Local Educators’ Association, “restrictions on assembly are analyzed identically to restrictions on speech.”
In other words, if the government can mandate the churches must close, it could possibly mandate a gag order on speech. If a Governor or President insists is a compelling reason to mandate all preaching and teaching should be suspended, would Richard Hammer concur?
Johnson implies that there may not be enough precedent in the courts for the Government to enforce a mandate prohibiting churches to assemble.
“Most religious groups gather at least some number of people together, and restrictions on large gatherings might well impact these organizations’ rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. In the case of a pandemic, governments may ultimately rely on compelling governmental interests—protection of life and health—to support their regulations. But beware, as there is little case law outlining what might constitute a compelling interest.” – Otten Johnson Robinson Neff + Ragonetti PC; COVID-19 and the First Amendment: Thoughts for State and Local Regulators
While the Government may claim precedence because of a health crisis, it is my strong opinion (and I am not a lawyer) that in this case preserving the First Amendment is of greater concern. What does it matter if we live through COVID-19, but at the expense of churches no longer being protected from Government intrusion?
“Oh, but we wouldn’t take advantage and abuse the First Amendment,” they may say.
Really? Why do we not trust you? It is wise to trust a Government that in one year has a President that is favorable to Christianity, but the next year may have a President that has demonstrably anti-Christian? Would we want such a President to have the authority to ignore the First Amendment? I can imagine someone, such as Bernie Sanders, becoming President and using this precedence to prohibit church meetings based on a perceived threat to abortions rights, homosexual rights, or to his implementation of Socialism. Are churches ready to put their historical barrier against Government interference in their right to assemble in such jeopardy?
What if one day we were told that we will not be allowed to buy or sell anything until we pledge allegiance to the State, concede that it has power over Christianity and all religion, and allow a mark to be tattooed on our hands and foreheads, publicly expressing our compliance? When are people going to wake up to the fact that there are some things worth standing for even if it means denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, following Christ, and refusing to live in fear of a virus?