President Trump floated the idea Friday that houses of worship would be deemed “essential” by his administration. “They use the word ‘essential.’ I think churches are essential,” Trump said in a press conference.
The president told reporters that “literally I just got off the phone with CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and I talked about churches. I said I want the churches to open and the people want the churches to open. And I think you’ll have something come down very soon from CDC.”
Trump is nobody’s idea of a regular churchgoer. Yet his remarks showed he’s been paying attention to the virtual religion that faithful folks have had to live with for the past few months. “People want to be in their churches. It’s wonderful to sit home and watch something on a laptop, but it can never be the same as being in a church and being with your friends,” Trump said.
What would “come down” from the CDC would be guidelines about how to reopen houses of worship for business safely. Those guidelines would likely be followed on by more instructions from the Department of Justice about how the First Amendment guarantees religious freedom and that states have to respect that freedom as they come up with various schemes to “open up” slowly.
Earlier in the week, the Department of Justice sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom to raise “several civil rights concerns with the treatment of places of worship” in his executive orders and “California Reopening Plan” documents.
The letter was cosigned by the head of the civil rights division of the DOJ and all of the California office district heads. It reminded the state’s executive that “Laws that do not treat religious activities equally with comparable nonreligious activities are subject to heightened scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.” That scrutiny would come in the form of them watching closely and litigating if necessary.
During the COVID crisis, President Trump and his administration have been consistently more supportive of the rights of religious peoples and their institutions than many governors and mayors, particularly those of the opposite party.
Bill de Blasio is the New York mayor who threatened any faith group that assembled in defiance of his orders not only with fines or arrests but also with “closing the building” where that worship occurs “permanently.” He is also a Democrat.
Roy Cooper is the governor of North Carolina who issued an executive order banning any religious gatherings of more than 10 people. Local law enforcement had asked him to take a more lenient approach, but he rejected that, and then a U.S. Court Judge spiked his plan. Democrat.
And of course the governor of California is a Democrat.
You can find exceptions to this rule, but virtually every time you see a story about a public officeholder taking a more heavy-handed approach to religious institutions and public worship these days, that officeholder turns out to be a Democrat. And almost every time you see an officeholder or political appointee vindicating the rights of the religious, that person turns out to be a Republican.
Short term, the tension between the administration and local bosses is good news for religious freedom in America. Long term, it is a huge problem to have a partisan divide on this issue. If religious freedom is an election issue, it can lose. At some point, it just might.
Many parties in Europe have broken down along pro- and anti-clericalist lines, with parties of the left typically more anti-clerical and parties of the right more pro-clerical. Because the Constitution forbade the federal government from setting up its own church, America used to be a different story. We had a broad consensus here in favor of religious freedom.
Unfortunately, that consensus broke down years before the current pandemic crisis. The relatively new split is simply being reflected in the actions of officeholders who have very different constituencies with diverging demands.
When the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was passed in 1993, it was sponsored by current Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and passed nearly unanimously with the support of both parties. The bill arose in response to many concerns, a big one being that Native Americans complained their traditional folk religion wasn’t being respected in law.
When Indiana passed its own version of RFRA a few years back, then-Gov. Mike Pence was savagely attacked by Democrats for backing “anti-gay” legislation, because someone somewhere in the state might use that law to defend against charges of discrimination. Pence looked like a deer in the headlights when confronted about this in national media. That he quickly backed and signed “clarifying” legislation has largely been ignored by his critics.
Increasingly, you’ve had one party that is broadly for the religious freedom of all Americans facing off against another party that thinks the first freedom recognized in the Bill of Rights should take a back seat to other concerns. The latest quarrels over quarantines are only throwing that disagreement into sharper relief.
Jeremy Lott wants to go back to church.