For the first time in American history, government ordered the church to stop meeting together, and the church listened.
Should the churches have closed? Sure, maybe. Should the government have required it? Not a chance.
In states across the country, faith congregations were ordered to disperse to “slow the spread” of covid-19, and for a long time few questioned the wisdom, or the constitutionality, of such an order. And so, while pot shops, liquor stores, and abortion clinics remained open, places of worship closed their doors.
Finally, as of May 21, President Trump has ordered the CDC to include places of worship as “essential” in its guidelines, and churches will begin reopening. Many and loud are the objections to his action—but whether Trump has the power to override governors is not the heart of the issue.
We have to consider what was at stake when governors ordered the churches to close—the same thing that was at stake when the Constitution was ratified, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, when the Puritan Pilgrims fled England and came to the New World, when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church, when the Magna Carta was forced upon King John… religious freedom. America is the greatest country on earth—not because of our economy or our military, although those things are great—but because of our lasting commitment to religious freedom. It was for that that our Founders fought and died, and if we lose that, we lose the one thing that makes us truly unique among the nations of the world.
Now, I’ll admit that perhaps churches not meeting together was a good idea, but the church choosing not to meet for a defined period of time would have been entirely different than being told it could not. The critical point is the autonomy of individuals and religious organizations; if we allow the government to tell the church what to do, we could very easily end up like the state sponsored churches of centuries ago that persecuted and punished those who held different beliefs.
Evidently many believed that a global pandemic justified closing the churches, mosques, and synagogues. I would argue that this is just when we needed our places of worship the most, but the more important question is, what would justify a government order to close the church?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
It’s right there in the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Doesn’t a government order requiring churches to close prohibit the free exercise of religion? Doesn’t it abridge our right to peaceably assemble?
Now, the Amendment does say Congress, and as a result some are objecting that Presidential authority cannot override the orders of governors. But over the years the Bill of Rights, and especially the First Amendment, has been held up as the law of the land, from the smallest municipality to the federal government. The point is, this is the First Amendment for a reason—in the Founders eyes, it was the most important, the foundation for all the rest of our rights, because without the right to freedom of religion, no people can truly be free. The original goal of the First Amendment was to guard America from the kind of religious persecution that had plagued European nations for generations—in the words of the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, it was “to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.”
Religious freedom is being tested in recent years like never before in American history. Now, the American people have proven that by and large we’re willing to go along with an order to close our churches, something our Founders would have found unthinkable. Fortunately, we have a President who respects the Constitution and values religious liberty. But the tendency of those in power is to control, and people’s religion is historically the first target. We must be watchful, for, in the words of Ronald Reagan…
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”Ronald Reagan