A Mississippi church at the center of a legal battle over the shutdown exploded and burned to the ground yesterday — and it doesn’t look like a coincidence. The pastor of First Pentecostal in Holly Springs has led protests to allow his congregation to gather once again in defiance of local COVID-19 shutdown orders, including one inside a Walmart to accuse officials of double standards. A local judge had rebuked the church for acting in “an excessively reckless and cavalier manner,” a ruling the church had planned to fight.
That fight has been indefinitely postponed, and apparently intentionally, as investigators suspect arson for the explosion and destruction of the church. So what was the first clue? Well, the spray-painted message on the building might qualify, albeit somewhat illiterate:
First Pentecostal Church had sued the city of Holly Springs, Miss., which is about an hour southeast of Memphis, arguing that its stay-at-home order had violated the church’s right to free speech and interfered with its members’ ability to worship.
After firefighters put out the blaze early Wednesday, the police found a message, “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits,” spray-painted on the ground near the church’s doors, according to Maj. Kelly McMillen of the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department.
A photograph of the graffiti also appears to show an atomic symbol with an “A” in the center, which is sometimes used as a logo for atheist groups.
Aren’t there two Ks in hypokrits? Actually, if the arsonists wanted to go after hypocrites, they (a) might have checked their dictionary first, but (b) watched the YouTube video produced by the church. The point was pretty well made, even if the judge didn’t buy the argument. Shutdown orders that keep Walmart open while shutting down churches are clearly arbitrary, especially since churches have much less circulation of people within them. And eventually, a challenge on First Amendment grounds would succeed because the cities and states imposing them are demonstrably using a less-intrusive manner of serving a legitimate state interest in Walmart than in First Pentecostal, even though they are infringing on an explicit constitutional right in the latter.
The NYT then relates this to the overall argument in other states, including Minnesota:
Arguments over whether religious services can be held in person have become increasingly contentious in recent weeks.
Some churches in Minnesota this week said they would resume services in defiance of the governor’s orders. That followed a federal judge’s ruling in North Carolina that allowed for indoor religious gatherings after the governor said they were largely banned. And five lawyers with the Justice Department said in a letter to California on Tuesday that the state’s restrictions to combat the virus discriminated against religious institutions.
They pretty clearly discriminate against religious institutions, but the issue is that it’s an unconstitutional discrimination. Laws discriminate all the time, but they are legitimate if they do so in an even-handed manner, especially when it comes to constitutional rights. Those rules also discriminate against hair and nail salons and tattoo parlors, but that discrimination is based on non-arbitrary risk issues, and there is no explicit constitutional right to a tattoo. When infringing on constitutional rights for issues of public safety, states have to use the least intrusive method possible. Allowing other businesses to operate more openly while still restricting churches provides evidence that lesser intrusive measures are available, which makes the harsher church restrictions flat-out unconstitutional.
Was this really the work of illiterate atheists? Or did someone else want to set up atheism as a villain by burning the church? We’ve seen hoaxes before in church fires and other kinds of “hate crimes,” as well as legit crimes too, so keep an open mind. Be … agnostic for now, in other words. Suffice it to say that the hysteria that has been whipped up in this pandemic makes this believable for the moment as a hate crime against Christians, especially those who argue for their constitutional rights against arbitrary government orders. It’s about time that elected officials and judges start turning the dial down from 11. This time, no one got hurt. The next time we might not be so lucky.