Posted May 15, 2020. To settle a pandemic-related financial crisis at UMass Dartmouth, law faculty are not receiving research compensation in summer 2020. I will be away from my desk, May 16 to August 15. Blog posts will be sparse, and I will not receive email. On the upside, summer 🌞! If you need to reach me, please send a message through the faculty assistants’ office (Ms. Cain and Ms. Rittenhouse). Stay thirsty.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Lockdown tests religious freedom, responsibility

For two reasons, it pains me to see churches on the news violating stay-at-home rules.  First, like almost everyone, I'm horrified by the potential impact on people's health and lives, put at risk utterly unnecessarily.  Through the Bible, God calls on people to worship together, as a body, e.g. Hebrews 10:24-25. At the same time, as author Jon Meacham told Stephen Colbert in a terrific recent interview, during Passover and in anticipation of Easter, "Being willfully stupid is not part of the Christian tradition."


This might be an especially authentic Easter, Meacham suggested, in the sense that early Christians met in homes, e.g., Acts 12:12, and the disciples, if together, sought refuge behind locked doors after the Crucifixion, John 20:19.  Moreover, I've written previously about the biblical precedent for quarantine.

Second, these stories on the news are man-bites-dog coverage; what's being reported is aberrational, not normal.  And the truth about churches and other places of worship in this crisis could not be more poorly represented.  My church is the norm.  To protect congregants, the elders suspended our live worship service and other on-campus meetings before the law required.  We had Easter services on a live feed, and we're having classes, prayer, and meetings on Zoom.  Most importantly, we encourage and support one another, Romans 14, notwithstanding social distance.  In the absence of coordinated leadership and a functional social safety net from government, communities of faith are filling the gap, keeping people sound of mind and body.  That's the real religion story of the crisis (see also, e.g., NYT Wehner op-ed, Apr. 10).

Winston-Salem, N.C., March 20.  Photo by Breawycker CC BY-SA 4.0.
Seeing authorities in Kentucky and Louisiana effecting arrests and citing drivers at live religious ceremonies that defy government orders, I started to worry what damage these aberrational observances might do to our jurisprudence and tradition of free religious exercise.  Would this be yet another instance of #RuiningItForEveryone?  That is, if courts start making rulings that approve authoritarian government controls over even ludicrous assertions of religious freedom, the unintended consequence might be to water down religious freedom for all of us—however much I try to remain cognizant of the First Amendment's critical function in anti-majoritarianism.

A Methodist preacher on Deal Island, Md.,
probably the Rev. Joshua Thomas in the 1830s.
From Adam Wallace, The Parson of the Islands 93 (4th ed. 1872).
George Scoville, Nashville attorney and adjunct professor in political science at Belmont University, has written an excellent analysis of the present landscape in religious freedom law amid the lockdown, including explication of a recent federal court ruling in the Western District of Kentucky, and the potential application of the U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence on Native American peyote use.  He writes:
As an initial matter, nobody contests that, under the structure of our Constitution, states have always had plenary police power to regulate the health, safety, welfare, and morals of their citizens–the simple requirement being, at least after the 1860s, that people receive due process of law before a state-sanctioned deprivation of life, liberty, or property.  On the religious liberty question, my gut reaction is that, generally speaking, “safer-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” orders that prohibit gatherings of people larger than some discrete number, or which require that people maintain a proper social distance of some discrete number of feet, are not per se constitutionally problematic.  Rather, these orders, like the criminal prohibition on peyote use that applied to all Oregonians, apply to everyone.

However, As Scoville explains, there might be room for a challenge where the due process thread of the religious freedom argument intertwines with the equal protection thread.  Thus the court in Kentucky entertained the argument that disallowing drive-through worship while allowing drive-through liquor sales was constitutionally problematic.

Read Scoville's treatment at Church Closures During the COVID-19 Pandemic (Probably) Do Not Violate the First Amendment, April 13, 2020.

[UPDATE, April 26, 2020:  Attorney Scoville has authored an op-ed for The Tennessean in which he additionally considers the potential impact of mini-RFRA litigation amid the pandemic.]

[UPDATE, May 15, 2020: The Sixth Circuit has issued an injunction allowing live church services despite the Kentucky Governor's orders.] 

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