As of this writing, just five percent of Americans have not been on some form of lockdown over the past seven weeks to curb the spread of Covid-19. As society reopens, politicians, pundits, and business leaders are divided over the next step. So is the Catholic Church.
In some areas not hammered so hard by Covid, bishops seem eager for parishioners to regain a sense of normalcy, and thus are reopening churches, albeit slowly. Yet others, undoubtedly responding to the risk, reject that idea. For instance, Catholic churches in Georgia will remain closed through the end of May.
As with the secular aspects of reopening, it’s good that bishops have the discretion to weigh individually public health and safety with meeting the needs of their flocks. Just as importantly, though, it’s good to know that the people of God who want to celebrate their faith under the harsh glare of lockdown advocates have U.S. Attorney General William Barr to protect forcefully their right to religious freedom.
One fallout of Covid’s rampant spread has been constitutionally dubious directives to close churches—rather than relying on pastors to do the smart thing voluntarily. The top-down lockdown has forced many priests, including my own pastor, to resort to Mass by video.
This situation reminds me of the half-hour “Mass for Shut-ins” program I sometimes watched as a kid. The program helped deliver the liturgy to the ill, aged, and infirm who were homebound. But Mass via YouTube under coronavirus may test the depth of the reservoir of faith for some Catholics. For instance, my own pastor, just prior to delivering the final blessing of a recent YouTube Mass, seemed to lament whether the “new normal” will mean still-empty or mostly empty pews once we exit from coronavirus captivity.
Government officials have not helped in this regard.
For instance, take New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. In late March, when it appeared some religious groups would eschew the instructions to stop services, de Blasio responded, “A small number of religious communities, specific churches, specific synagogues are unfortunately not paying attention to this guidance even though it’s been so widespread.” Continuing, the mayor pointed out that he had ordered police, firefighters, and building officials to order people to disperse. If that did not happen, he added, “they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.” Permanently. Has de Blasio not heard of the First Amendment?
Speaking of which, in an April 15 televised interview, Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy about the arrest of 15 men who had gathered in a synagogue. Carlson inquired what authority granted the governor power essentially to “nullify the Bill of Rights.” Murphy, a Catholic, replied, “That’s above my pay grade, Tucker. I wasn’t thinking of the Bill of Rights when we did this … We looked at all the data and the science and it says people have to stay away from each other. That is the best thing we can do to break the back of the curve of this virus.”
In Mississippi in mid-April, police in Greenville issued citations carrying $500 fines to congregants of the Temple Baptist Church who gathered for a service—even though, according to The Washington Times, it was held in the parking lot and those who attended were required to remain in their cars with the windows rolled up and listen to the sermon and music on an FM radio station broadcast.
That case prompted Mr. Barr to announce that his department would protect worshipers from discriminatory Covid restrictions. The attorney general was similarly critical of potential First Amendment violations in Kentucky, which also banned drive-in church services.
On April 27, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer further spelled out his thoughts on religious practices.
Mr. Barr sent a letter to his prosecutors that directed action on state or local authorities who failed to respect the civil rights of religious Americans.
“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,” Mr. Barr wrote. “The legal restrictions on state and local authority are not limited to discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.… If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of Covid into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court.”
Mr. Barr acknowledged in the letter that “extraordinary” restrictions on travel and gatherings may “have been necessary in order to stop the spread of a deadly disease.” Still, he wrote, “Many policies that would be unthinkable in regular times have become commonplace in recent weeks, and we do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public. But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis. We must therefore be vigilant to ensure its protections are preserved, at the same time that the public is protected.”
Mr. Barr’s actions theoretically could affect Catholics more than most faith traditions. In October 2018, the Pew Research Center reported that America was home to 51 million Catholics—the largest religious denomination in the country. Mr. Barr is among them.
Arguably, Mr. Barr’s faith has made him more sympathetic to religious folks than his immediate predecessors. Just this year, according to the Justice Department’s website, Mr. Barr’s agency has supported a Kentucky photographer who was sanctioned after refusing to work at a same-sex marriage on religious grounds. The Justice Department also has urged the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Blaine Amendments, the anti-Catholic laws adopted in the 19th century to prohibit public funding for parochial schools, and has backed federal guidelines allowing wider latitude for prayer in public schools.
But Mr. Barr isn’t looking out for Christians only. The Justice Department has also spoken in favor of the right of Hindu leaders in Georgia to challenge land-use regulations cited by a local government to deny a building permit for their new temple; advocated on behalf of a Muslim prisoner who sought religious accommodation for the length of his beard; and trumpeted the federal indictment of a machete-wielding New York man accused of hate crimes in attacking Jewish worshipers last year at a rabbi’s home.
Moreover, with Mr. Barr’s blessing, the Justice Department in March conducted a week-long training session on religious freedom. According to The New York Times, the department noted, “Religious liberty is a core American value and a top priority for the department.” Justice officials further pointed out, “We pledge to protect the free exercise of religion when we take our oath to ‘support and defend the Constitution.’ We do so out of respect for the conscience of our fellow citizens and to preserve the civil society in which our liberal democracy can flourish.” The Times observed that “no religion was prioritized over another during the training sessions.”
Putting faith in action has earned Mr. Barr the opprobrium of liberals, Catholic and secular alike.
After Mr. Barr made a controversial defense of religious liberty last October at the University of Notre Dame, a columnist for Commonweal wrote, “Coming from someone eager to advance the agenda of a president who is a model of licentiousness and moral chaos—a president who claims he has never asked God for forgiveness—Mr. Barr’s moral preening is almost surreal.” Similarly, the left-wing magazine The Nation characterized Mr. Barr as a “paranoid right-wing Catholic ideologue who won’t respect the separation of church and state.” Such hyperbole, by design, plays on widespread historical ignorance, as neither Mr. Barr nor anyone else is calling for the United States to adopt an official, government-approved religion. Meanwhile, The Nation obviously believes in civil liberties for me but not for thee. With such comments, the publication glosses over the fact that the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. Public officials like Mr. Barr as well as everyday Americans have the right to enter the public square to challenge efforts that undermine their faith by government fiat, which, as the attorney general phrased it, represents an “unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.”
We should take a charitable spirit toward local and state officials, and think that they really have the public’s best interest at heart in limiting gatherings to block the spread of Covid. But our nation cannot remain on perpetual, indefinite lock-down. And when our elected leaders sidestep a fundamental underpinning of America’s constitutional history and exceptionalism—as Gov. Murphy admitted doing—Catholic clergy and laity who are willing to put faith over fear should be grateful that the Justice Department, under Bill Barr, is there to remind them that matters spiritual and eternal also cannot be bound into perpetuity.
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