Washington, D.C. – Churches have been making the news a lot lately. With most states enacting some variation of a ‘stay at home’ order, many places had deemed places of worship as non-essential activity.
Churches have been ordered to close. Pastors have been arrested. Attendees have been threatened with mandatory quarantine after going to a services. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened to shut down churches permanently.
This is the spot where I pause to say that I believe common sense has to prevail. It makes no sense to sit in a room with hundreds of other people in the midst of this pandemic. That being said, I also believe that pandemic or none, our Constitutional rights are iron-clad and non-negotiable.
And here is the part where I insert a name and tell a story.
That name is Attorney General William Barr. The story, according to The Hill, is that Barr said:
“…that the government ‘may not impose special restrictions’ on religious gatherings as churches across the country raise eyebrows with large in-person ceremonies conducted against the advice of health officials.
Barr emphasized recommendations from federal health officials that people practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings, noting that ‘the Constitution does allow some temporary restriction on our liberties that would not be tolerated in normal circumstances.’
‘But even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,’ Barr said in a statement.
‘Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.'”
A 14-page memo was filed by the DOJ supporting a Mississippi church. Attendees were fined $500 per person for sitting in their own cars in the parking lot listening to a service.
The filing read in part:
“The United States has a substantial interest in the preservation of its citizens’ fundamental right to the free exercise of religion, expressly protected by the First Amendment.”
It also detailed how the church set up its service.
“The church broadcasts its service over a low-power FM station for its parishioners who gather in their cars in the church’s parking lot. Attendees are required to remain in their cars at all times with their windows rolled up.
The church does not have a website or the ability to stream services online, and ‘many church members do not have social media accounts, the ability to participate in a Zoom call, or watch services online.’
The Mississippi governor has designated churches and other religious entities as an ‘essential business or operation’ that can operate so long as they adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Mississippi Department of Health guidelines.
On April 7, 2020, however, the city issued an order titled ‘Executive Order Regarding Church Services’ that barred churches from holding in-person or drive-in services until the Governor’s shelter in place order is lifted. On April 8, the city dispatched eight uniformed police officers to the church.
‘No one was outside his or her car at any point during the service, including when the City police arrived’ and those ‘attending the service were sitting peacefully inside their cars listening to Pastor Scott’s sermon, with their windows rolled up.’
The police then ‘began knocking on car windows, demanding driver’s licenses, and writing citations with $500 fines.’”
In its argument, the DOJ said that churches must be afforded the same considerations as similar non-religious activities. The compared the the church service to the local drive-in restaurants, saying that the the citations would only be valid if they also wrote $500 tickets to everyone sitting in their cars waiting for their orders.
“As we explain in the Statement of Interest, where a state has not acted evenhandedly, it must have a compelling reason to impose restrictions on places of worship and must ensure that those restrictions are narrowly tailored to advance its compelling interest,” said Barr.
“The United States Department of Justice will continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions.”
Keep in mind, multiple municipalities are doing everything they can to restrict religious gatherings. Here is just one such example of some of the attempts to do exactly that.
Virginia governor Ralph Northam has made it a criminal offense to attend church services of more than 10 people. The governor’s executive order went into effect in the commonwealth on Tuesday, March 24, making any non-essential gatherings a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail or a fine of $2,500.
Ralph Northam just officially closed Virginia churches and made it a crime punishable by up to 12 months in jail and/or a $2,500 fine
This is Anti-American.
A governor can't punish someone for attending church.
What happened to the First Amendment?
Where is the outrage?
— Charlie Kirk (@charliekirk11) March 25, 2020
Executive Order 53 states “All gatherings of more than 10 people are banned statewide, beginning at 11:59 PM on Tuesday, March 24, 2020.
This does not include gatherings that involve the provision of health care or medical services, access to essential services for low-income residents, such as food banks; operations of the media; law enforcement agencies; or operations of government.”
The executive order expires at 11:59 p.m. on April 23, 2020, and is subject to change at any time in response to ongoing concerns for public health during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the order, Northam required all restaurants, breweries, food courts, farmers markets, and bars to close to the public, and shift to delivery and takeout only. Only retail businesses deemed “essential” were permitted to remain open.
“Any brick-and-mortar retail business not listed above must limit all in-person shopping to no more than 10 patrons per establishment, adhere to social distancing recommendations, sanitize common surfaces, and apply relevant workplace guidance from state and federal authorities.”
“If any such business cannot adhere to the 10-patron limit with proper social distancing requirements, it must close,” the order said.
Businesses that are found to be in violation of Executive Order Fifty-Three “may be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor.” In Virginia, Class 1 misdemeanors are punishable with “confinement in jail for not more than twelve months and a fine of not more than $2,500, either or both.”
Unlike other jurisdictions where similar shutdown orders have been issued, places of worship–of any creed or belief–have not been labeled as essential in Virginia, and are subject to this order.
“Virginians are strongly encouraged to seek alternative means of attending religious services, such as virtually or via “drive-through” worship,” states a webpage of frequently asked questions about Executive Order 53 on the state government website.
“Places of worship that do conduct in-person services must limit gatherings to 10 people, to comply with the statewide 10-person ban.”
Many parishes have opted to live-stream liturgies in lieu of in-person attendance.
Many evangelical mega-churches in Northern Virginia have also shifted their services to online-viewing only.
In a press release about the executive order, Northam called the pandemic an “unprecedented situation” which “requires unprecedented actions to protect public health and save lives.”
“I know the next several weeks will be difficult. These restrictions on non-essential businesses will create hardships on the businesses and employees affected.
But they are necessary, and we do not undertake them lightly. I am calling on Virginians to sacrifice now, so that we can get through this together,” he said.
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