How long can a government suspend the right to freedom of worship because of the coronavirus? Under Illinois Democrat Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s reopening plan, a year or more.
That’s, at least, the likelihood created by the five-phase plan unveiled by the governor called Restore Illinois.
“We have to figure out how to live with COVID-19 until it can be vanquished – and to do so in a way that best supports our residents’ health and our health care systems, and saves the most lives,” Pritzker said Tuesday, according to WMAQ-TV.
Restore Illinois is a five-phase plan for lifting the stay-at-home order Illinois is under. The state is currently at phase two — past the first phase, where only essential businesses are allowed to stay open, but where businesses can only offer curbside pickup and delivery and residents must wear face coverings.
It’s not until phase three that gatherings of up to 10 people are allowed and gatherings of up to 50 people are allowed at phase 4. Finally, when phase five — dubbed “Illinois Restored” — arrives, you can have gatherings in whatever size you see fit.
So what’s it take to get to phase five of Restore Illinois? “With a vaccine or highly effective treatment widely available or the elimination of any new cases over a sustained period, the economy fully reopens with safety precautions continuing,” the plan states.
Gov. Pritzker was asked about whether this applied to churches at his media briefing on Thursday and gave the usual mic-drop answer to the whole thing, which is that a) of course and b) this is the scientists talking.
“You know that in phase three, there can be gatherings, church gatherings, of 10 or fewer. In phase four, 50 or fewer. So that’s the guidance that’s been given to me,” Pritzker said.
“I’m not the one providing that guidance. It really is what the scientists and epidemiologists are recommending.”
Don’t talk to him, talk to the experts. And you don’t want to talk back to the experts, do you? Next question?
The problem here is that, unlike your July 4th BBQ shindig, your ability to meet for worship services has some level of protection under the First Amendment, which guarantees in very specific language the free exercise of religion. So what, then, are we to make about a timeline that sounds like it would allow no in-person services of more than 50 souls for over a year?
And make no mistake, that’s really what he’s saying here.
A solution via vaccine, at least if one is to listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, could be a while off.
He told NBC’s “Today” on April 30 that it was “in the realm of possibility” to have millions of doses of vaccine ready by January.
Coronavirus vaccine by January is ‘doable,’ Dr. Fauci sayshttps://t.co/tpjPqT2JAN
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) April 30, 2020
In early March, Fauci predicted before a Senate hearing it could take a bit longer, saying that 12 to 18 months may be a reasonable estimate, according to The Washington Post.
“If you don’t have the production capacity to make tens and tens of millions of doses, it may take even longer,” he added.
So far, there isn’t a universally accepted treatment outside of a vaccine, not that stops people from dying. The antiviral drug remdesivir and antimalarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have been the most promising drugs in trials and neither comes close to providing the results that would land most of Illinois in phase five. So what then?
The COVID-19 disease, it’s clear, in short, isn’t going anywhere soon. It’s also unlikely there will be any effective treatment found that will lead to an elimination of cases for an undefined “sustained period” in any reasonably populous area of the state. It’s possible to imagine a world where there won’t ever be this kind of effective treatment for COVID-19.
The problem, then, is that we’ve seldom seen the right to worship suspended indefinitely in any situation. Realistically, under Pritzker’s plan, we’re looking at over a year before more than 50 people can meet for a worship service — if even then.
And as always, this is the epidemiologists and scientists who are providing the evidence for declaring in-person church services verboten. Funny how this seems to happen when the governors have a D after their name.
When abrogating basic constitutional rights, however, the burden of proof is on those epidemiologists and scientists. We may be in a situation of uncertainty, one where meeting in person in groups of over 50 is unwise.
If that basic right is being taken away from us, however, we need to be told why it’s being taken away. We need evidence that churches can’t socially distance in numbers of more than 50 people — an arbitrary number if there ever was one.
The governor throwing up his hands and abdicating his role as the guarantor of the basic rights his citizens have under the Constitution and reducing worship to a mere social gathering, allowed only at the whims of experts, is deeply disturbing.
This isn’t to say it’s wise for churches to meet in person and it isn’t to say that it’s advisable. It’s to say it’s their right. Courts are agreeing. In Kentucky, federal judges have already issued rulings going against Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s restriction on in-person services.
“We are a relatively young nation. But our Constitution is the oldest in the world. We describe it as enduring— a value that must be protected not only when it is easy but when it is hard,” United State District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove wrote in a ruling late last week, according to WBKO-TV.
“The church involved in the lawsuit, he continued “wants to gather for corporate worship. They want to freely exercise their deeply held religious belief about what it means to be a faithful Christian. For them, it is ‘essential’ that they do so. And they want to invoke the Constitution’s protection on this point.
“But the governor, by executive order, has put a stop to that. He can do that, but he must have a compelling reason for using his authority to limit a citizen’s right to freely exercise something we value greatly — the right of every American to follow their conscience on matters related to religion … despite an honest motive, it does not appear at this preliminary stage that reason exists.”
It’s safe to say the judge is an expert too, albeit of a different sort. If states can’t figure out a way to expeditiously open churches while following social distancing guidelines, he’s the type of expert who we’re going to be hearing a lot from over the days and weeks ahead — and one perfervidly hopes they’ll have has much respect for the constitution as Judge Van Tatenhove had, and Gov. Pritzker clearly doesn’t.
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