So, it has come to this – atheists are now burning churches? On May 19, Republican Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves “announced in-person worship can begin with strict guidelines …” Three days later, the New York Times reported a Mississippi church was burned to the ground – with symbols of an atheist group and message: “Bet you stay home now.” Is this where we are in America? Let us hope not.
Many Republican governors are opening “houses of worship” to “in-person” services, recognizing spiritual well-being is “essential.” President Trump agrees. Many Democrat governors are fighting the argument. New battle lines are being drawn.
On one side are those who recognize faith as pivotal to American life. Two-thirds of Americans say their faith is important, including 240 million Christians. On the other are politicians with a tin ear, who see collective worship as akin to elective surgery, less important than reopening abortion clinics, barbershops, pet groomers, and liquor stores.
These battle lines are significant, as they suggest a fracturing consensus – another polarity growing in America. The expanding division is between those of faith and those hostile to it, or who would rather not think about it, do not care.
California’s Democratic Governor, Gavin Newsom, fits squarely into the second group – with several other Democrat governors. Ironically, the day President Trump declared houses of worship “essential” to our national well-being, Governor Newsom pressed the US Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit, to uphold California’s ban on reopening churches.
On May 22nd, President Trump declared: “The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now – for this [Memorial Day] weekend, noting “in America, we need more prayer not less.” That same day, the activist 9th Circuit upheld Newsom’s ban – even as restaurants and retailers open.
Not surprisingly, two Democrat appointees overruled a Trump appointee on “free exercise.” Trump appointee Danial Collins dissented, writing “the State’s position on this score illogically assumes that the very same people who cannot be trusted to follow the rules at their place of worship can be trusted to do so at their workplace.”
Nevertheless, without apology, California’s Democrat governor demanded churches stay closed, even as parallel gathering places reopen. In California, this includes 144 categories of personnel – just not in houses of worship.
If this is not disparate treatment of religion – and citizens of faith – by elevating secular activities above religious, trampling federal and state constitutional rights to “free exercise of religion,” never mind assembly and speech, one is hard-pressed to imagine what disparate treatment would look like.
Some legal scholars will say the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause was aimed at preventing Congress from intruding on states’ rights, not states from intruding on citizen rights. After all, the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” In other words, it does not expressly protect citizens from an overzealous or anti-religious state governor.
While true, our founders would be in shock at disrespect for faith. Their intent was never to permit states to infringe on rights of “the People,” or to dis-establish religious activities in favor of secular ones. How can California, for example, allow secular counseling, officiation, and commercial conversation while stiff-arming the same activities in a church?
Thankfully, the hero is our 14th Amendment. “Free exercise” of religion is not “absolute,” since states can – on rare occasions – tailor protections for public safety, but governors cannot discriminate against houses of worship. The 14th Amendment takes First Amendment protections to state level, guaranteeing “religious civil rights” by securing “equal protection of the laws” to both religious and non-religious citizens.
It reads: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” That obviously includes religious venues with non-religious.
On May 22nd, President Trump said he will seek to “override” governors, if they do not reopen houses of worship. In effect, he pledged to stop unequal treatment. California offers a test case. If California does not reopen churches, expect action. In short, the 9th Circuit is simply wrong – and if California does not permit churches to reopen, President Trump’s Justice Department should move to the Supreme Court. The 14th Amendment is not ambiguous, not irrelevant, not just for secular interests. It protects Americans of faith, as surely as those choosing not to believe.
All this brings us back to three take-aways. First, America was founded on faith – and we must continue to defend it. Growing atheist and anti-religious violence against Americans of faith – any faith, in any state, for any reason – must stop. It is illegal, immoral, and anti-American.
Second, this coronavirus has become an excuse for new fractures in society. We must stop them, as they work against our long-term interests. We must return to basics, start trusting each other and common sense, not punting everything to indecipherable models, runaway spending, and a nanny-state that represents interests our founders properly feared.
Finally, we should take this moment to ponder the federal judiciary. The 2020 Presidential and Senate elections will be about the economy, crisis management, and international affairs. They will also be about the judiciary. If we care about keeping government limited, rights real, and our federal bench faithful to the Constitution – we must elect those who see the world that way. We do not need more closed churches, let alone more church burning.