The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees, among other things, citizens’ rights to freely assemble and practice their religion. Does the Constitution still apply during a health crisis?
From the behavior of state and local officials across the nation, it appears they think not, as many imposed restrictions on religious services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This conflict hit the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on Monday as a group of pastors filed a lawsuit against California Gov. Gavin Newsom, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and county officials of Riverside and San Bernardino over what they call a “gross abuse of power.”
The lawsuit contends they “have seized the Coronavirus pandemic to expand their authority by unprecedented lengths, depriving Plaintiffs and all other residents of California of fundamental rights protected by the U.S. and California Constitutions, including freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, and due process and equal protection under the law.”
On March 19, Newsom enacted a stay-at-home order requiring all people living in the state to do just that in an effort to stop the spread of virus with exceptions for “essential services” to remain open such as pharmacies, gas stations, banks and grocery stores — but not places of worship, according to the state’s webpage.
The lawsuit also cited the two counties with similar restrictions.
In violation of the orders, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the Rev. James Moffat, senior pastor at Church Unlimited in Indio, was fined for holding a service on Palm Sunday, which commemorates Jesus Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem and is celebrated just one week before Christians’ holiest day of the year, Easter Sunday.
Mark Trammell, the executive director and general counsel of the nonprofit civil liberties organization Center for American Liberty, which coordinated with Dhillon Law Group to file the lawsuit on behalf of the pastors, tweeted about the unfair treatment.
“Our client, a pastor, was fined $1,000 for preaching on Palm Sunday,” Trammell wrote. “(And the church practiced social distancing during the service.)”
“The Founding Fathers would not recognize our country.”
Our client, a pastor, was fined $1,000 for preaching on Palm Sunday. (And the church practiced social distancing during the service.)
— Mark Trammell (@mark_trammell) April 13, 2020
Newsom said at a news conference on Good Friday that those who planned in-person services on Easter could do so as long as they obeyed social distancing, staying “at least six feet apart from someone else.”
Still, Iglesia De Cristo in Merced, California, was in hot water when it held an Easter service.
The following day, the Merced County Sheriff’s Department cited the church’s pastor, Fernando Aguas, for violating COVID-19 orders against large gatherings.
“The Bible does say that we should not stop gathering,” Aguas he told KFSN-TV in his defense.
Sheriff Vern Warnke disagreed, and his response to those who objected to closing churches is telling.
“You still have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, you’re just gonna have to do it a different way,” he said.
“I’m not telling you you can’t worship, I’m just telling you where you can’t go to do it, and that’s based on this health directive.”
That is precisely the issue at hand, however; even in a crisis of the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic, under First Amendment protections, the government cannot restrict the “free exercise” of one’s religion.
To begin with, the restrictions were not fairly applied as places of worship were not considered “essential services” despite the fact that Christians would surely call practicing their faith during times of uncertainty absolutely necessary.
Furthermore, practicing social distancing is prudent, but it should be a matter of personal responsibility rather than an excuse to infringe upon basic, constitutionally protected rights.
It should not sit well with Americans when religious services are swarmed by police, as was also the case with a Kentucky church where attendees had their license plates recorded and notices of a 14-day quarantine served during their Easter Sunday service.
The reason for the existence of the Constitution and its Bill of Rights is to guarantee those freedoms, which is especially important during times of national strife and fear when it is especially easy to slip into tyranny.
While the intentions of Newsom and other lawmakers might be completely benevolent as they try to protect their citizens from the virus, their tactics appear not to be compatible with constitutional law and certainly not with the American spirit.
COVID-19 is only the most recent enemy to infiltrate the country, but it certainly will not be the last.
We must remain ever vigilant, then, to not allow our basic freedoms that were purchased with the blood of our forefathers to become another casualty of the pandemic.
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