The amount of obloquy heaped upon religious congregations that insist on exercising their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion is, quite frankly, one of the most baffling aspects of the coronavirus lockdown to this writer.
In New York City, for instance, millennials and other social drinkers are gathering outside bars — many without masks — sipping their “takeaway” drinks and mingling in a way that doesn’t exactly evince social distancing. In response, New York City launched the “Take Out, Don’t Hang Out” campaign, according to Gothamist — a pleasant, hands-off way of dealing with the problem.
When religious congregations said they might continue meeting in person earlier in the spring, however, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio actually threatened to shutter those congregations permanently. Apparently, NYC skipped right over the “Pray, Don’t Stay” campaign. More’s the pity, because the slogan just suggests itself.
Dealing with churches, synagogues and mosques almost exclusively with the heavy hand of the law isn’t exactly a good look, particularly given the First Amendment protections afforded to religious congregations. Already, a ban on in-person church gatherings in Kentucky has been struck down by a federal court, a clear sign that perhaps state and local jurisdictions should tread carefully when it comes to faith.
Don’t tell that to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her city’s law enforcement, which allegedly tried to shut down a Baptist church service with armed police in a manner the pastor described as “like the Soviet styled KGB.”
It’s worth noting there’s some question as to how much Chicago police interfered with services at two separate churches in recent weeks.
The most serious allegation comes from Cornerstone Baptist Church in the Woodlawn area of South Chicago.
According to a letter from Pastor Courtney Lewis, Chicago sent three squad cars with armed policemen to interrupt their service this past Sunday.
“Like the Soviet styled KGB they knocked on our locked doors; the only thing she hasn’t done ‘yet’ is beat the doors down and arrest our members,” Lewis wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois John Lausch.
“Thankfully our doors were locked as a normal safety precaution we take each service to protect our members from the escalating gun violence in Chicago.
“Mayor Lightfoot is defiant of the US Constitution and our freedom to worship.”
It’s not just Lightfoot, it’s worth noting.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker introduced a five-phase plan for reopening Illinois which wouldn’t allow large gatherings — including church services of more than 50 people — until “a vaccine or highly effective treatment [is] widely available or” there is “the elimination of any new cases over a sustained period.”
Given the timelines experts have given, that target could be at least a year off. That didn’t fly with churches in the Chicago area; according to the Hyde Park Herald, several churches have announced their intention to reopen.
Lightfoot said she would “rather be in conversation than conflict,” although she also said the city would be issuing citations to any church that held in-person services in violation of the lockdown. Work that one out for yourself.
In the case of Cornerstone Baptist Church, the Hyde Park Herald reported the congregation’s May 17 service went off without interference from the fuzz. However, in the Albany Park neighborhood, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church had “no parking” signs in front of it that were put up by the city.
This Sunday, however, things allegedly took a turn at Cornerstone Baptist.
According to Lewis’ letter, there were “45 attendees” at the church, far more than are currently allowed under the state’s ban on religious gatherings of more than 10 people.
Lewis told conservative radio host Todd Starnes that an usher spotted the police and took pictures of them.
Meanwhile, here’s a small sample of where the media stands on the issue from a May 11 headline in the Chicago Sun-Times: “Lightfoot hopes to educate defiant church into compliance, avoiding mass arrests.”
“We’re not gonna send in the police to arrest parishioners. People are exercising their faith, and I understand that,” she said.
Her idea of education may not match yours, however.
The Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church faced fines of up to $1,500 for holding three in-person services , according to a May 17 article from Block Club Chicago. This, of course, is in addition to the “no-parking” signs.
The optics of harassing two minority congregations — one black and one Romanian — apparently isn’t a problem for Lightfoot or anyone else in the city. Nor, apparently, is the attention and resources being used on two small congregations that, from all appearances, have implemented social distancing best practices.
Now, is this wise? I’m in no position to judge.
Most congregations, including my own, have moved to online services for the time being. I’m no epidemiologist, but common sense tells me it’s a safer alternative.
However, that’s not the point. For Lewis, keeping his church open is a matter of religious obligation — an obligation protected by the Bill of Rights.
“We are trying to follow the laws of man as much as reasonably possible but when the laws of man conflict with the laws of God I as a pastor have a duty to follow the laws of God,” he wrote in his letter.
“We will not be intimidated by this overhanded government bully but we are requesting the assistance of our president and our justice department in correcting the grave miscarriage of the law.”
And as for the danger?
“If you have been to work, to the grocery store, to any other business that has been open, then you should attend [church]. The church building will be no less safe than any of those places,” Lewis wrote in a separate letter to parishioners earlier this month.
“A week ago, I went to Walgreens with my daughter and I saw that 109 people are allowed in the store at a time. I think we will have a few less than that in the building.”
He summed it up a bit more neatly for Starnes: “All we are seeking is the same consideration and trust that is being tendered toward the liquor stores, abortion clinics and Walmart.”
And that’s the thing: Neither liquor stores nor Walmart are protected under the Constitution. It’s right up front in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Yes, these are trying times — but if churches are practicing social distancing guidelines, Chicago officialdom doesn’t need to be harassing them.
That’ll likely put them in public conflict with the Trump administration, if not legal conflict with the Justice Department. The president has made clear that he believes religious congregations have the right to reopen and the DOJ has openly sided with congregations pursuing legal action against states and local jurisdictions.
“I call on governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now,” the president said in remarks at the White House Friday.
“These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united,” he added. “The people are demanding to go to church and synagogue and to their mosque.”
Lewis’ claims, it’s worth noting, have yet to be fully corroborated. What’s clear, though, is that Chicago is engaged in a problematic pattern of targeting churches without regard for the constitutional protections afford them.
They’re far from the only jurisdiction doing so, but the reports seem to indicate they’re one of the most aggressive. Given federal court precedent and the Trump administration’s focus on protecting the right to worship freely, however, that could change very quickly.
In other words, maybe sticking with a “Pray, Don’t Stay” campaign might have been a better alternative for Mayor Lightfoot and the city of Chicago. It’s slightly too late for that now, though.
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