During the dark, stressful times most of us are living through, the faithful may at least find a bit of hope in the promise of the Lord and the company of their fellow parishioners. In most places, services are being held virtually, with people receiving their ministrations from religious leaders over video conferencing technology. But in some spots, you can still head out to the church of your choice and take a seat in the pews. And if you choose to do that, at least according to the editorial board of the Washington Post, you are engaging in an “affront to morality.”
Hoo boy… I suppose we’d better see what they’re on about now.
THE CONSTITUTION’S First Amendment confers religious liberty; it is not a license to kill or even to put the faithful at exceptional risk of harm. The large majority of U.S. faith leaders concur and have acted accordingly, by canceling in-person worship during the pandemic. The handful who have defied state and local edicts prohibiting large gatherings imperil not only their followers but also everyone in their communities. That is an unacceptable affront to public health — and to morality.
At any given moment and place in this crisis, there is no clean line between the constitutional right to freely exercise faith and the moral mandate to protect lives. In a close call, however, and in any genuine crisis, the first obligation of government is to safeguard public health when it is endangered by a deadly threat.
They go on to talk about some churches where people are allowed to attend parking lot services in their cars. (An arrangement they describe as being “potentially a workable solution, providing the faithful follow the rules.” How charitable of them.) The Post then goes on to highlight the true villain in the story, at least as they see it. That would be Florida Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, recently arrested for unlawful assembly when he held services in his church after a ban was imposed. Howard-Browne has now canceled the in-church services, blaming the cessation on the acts of a tyrannical government. Here’s how the Post responds to that charge.
In fact, the constitutional guarantee of civil liberties is not absolute, and its abridgement is not necessarily an act of tyranny. Dangerous speech — falsely shouting “fire” in a theater and causing panic, in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s pointed example — is no more protected than dangerous assembly. And right now, in most communities, traditional religious assemblies are dangerous petri dishes that enable the transmission of a deadly virus.
This isn’t anything new and it mostly represents a phenomenon we’ve been discussing here for a couple of months. During a time of declared crisis, there will always be those who are quick to remind us that our fundamental rights, not given to us by our government, but simply assured to us, are not absolute. And we shouldn’t be getting all up in arms if they are suspended for the greater good. (Only temporarily, of course.)
The editors go on to compare the closure of churches to the shuttering of concert halls, sports arenas, restaurants, and gyms. They manage to completely ignore the obvious differences between these examples, whether you’re talking about constitutional rights or the specifics of government shutdown mandates. First of all, the founders never assured us that we have the specific right to attend music festivals, work out at a gym or dine in a restaurant. They did, however, vow to protect our freedom to worship in way we feel the call to do so.
Beyond that, there is the question of essential versus nonessential services and businesses. Grocery stores must remain open and most states have left it up to the individual businesses how they enforce social distancing practices by their customers. Why? Because people have to eat. But what of the other sort of food that many people still feel is just as important, if you’ll pardon a brief poetic turn here. What about the food for your soul?
Nobody is forcing people to go to the grocery store. It’s simply an option being left available so you won’t starve. Similarly, nobody is forcing people to attend church services if their place of worship is offering them. Not everyone has access to online services. I still have three relatives who don’t own a laptop, tablet or any other such device. Two of them still have landlines and have never owned a smartphone.
Churches should easily be able to accommodate the smaller number of people venturing out for services while observing basic social distancing rules. Family members who live together should be able to sit together in the pews. Each group or individual could be separated by six feet, alternating the spacing in every other row. People could be asked to not mix together outside and enter the church one person or family group at a time. Some extra disinfecting regimens and a request for parishioners to wear masks should make the exercise at least as safe as going to the grocery store to purchase your food for the week.
A terrible precedent is being set during this pandemic. And if the government sees that it can successfully suspend your rights for one emergency, how long will it be until the next emergency appears on the horizon? There’s some additional food for thought for you on a Monday.