The First Amendment Amidst the Coronavirus Crisis | The American Spectator
The First Amendment Amidst the Coronavirus Crisis
George Neumayr
by
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (YouTube screenshot)

“The Bill of Rights, as you well know, protects Americans’ rights — enshrines their right to practice their religion as they see fit and to congregate together to assemble peacefully,” Tucker Carlson said to Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey in mid-April. “By what authority did you nullify the Bill of Rights in issuing this [quarantine] order? How do you have the power to do that?” Murphy replied, “That’s above my pay grade, Tucker. I wasn’t thinking of the Bill of Rights when we did this.”

Murphy’s remark will define the complacent secularism that predominated during the coronavirus crisis. He wasn’t just speaking for himself but for many other political figures for whom the Constitution’s emphasis on religious freedom is just an antiquated quibble. It would have come as a surprise to the Founding Fathers that a crisis absolves a governor of any duty to uphold the Constitution. Murphy’s comment perfectly sums up the casual secularist tyranny under which we live.

It has fallen to Attorney General Bill Barr to remind these figures that respecting constitutional rights is not above their pay grade. Speaking to radio host Hugh Hewitt recently, Barr said,

When you’re faced with a potential catastrophe, the government can deploy measures and even put temporary and reasonable restrictions on rights if really necessary to meet the danger. But it still has the obligation to adapt to the circumstances. Whatever powers the government has, whether it be the president or the state governor, still is bounded by constitutional rights of the individual. Our federal constitutional rights don’t go away in an emergency. They constrain what the government can do. And in a circumstance like this, they put on the government the burden to make sure that whatever burdens it’s putting on our constitutional liberties are strictly necessary to deal with the problem. They have to be targeted. They have to use less intrusive means if they are equally effective in dealing with the problem. And that’s the situation we’re in today. We’re moving into a period where we have to do a better job of targeting the measures we’re deploying to deal with this virus.

The Justice Department under Barr’s direction has sought to protect churches from unequal treatment during the crisis. He has intervened in the case of a Mississippi church that wasn’t even permitted to hold services while congregants remained in their cars. Barr said about the case,

Today, the Department filed a Statement of Interest in support of a church in Mississippi that allegedly sought to hold parking lot worship services, in which congregants listened to their pastor preach over their car radios, while sitting in their cars in the church parking lot with their windows rolled up. The City of Greenville fined congregants $500 per person for attending these parking lot services — while permitting citizens to attend nearby drive-in restaurants, even with their windows open. The City appears to have thereby singled churches out as the only essential service (as designated by the state of Mississippi) that may not operate despite following all CDC and state recommendations regarding social distancing.

It is hard to imagine such practices as fining congregants taking place during other moments of crisis in American history. The eagerness with which secularists have clamped down on churches is a symptom of a de-Christianized age. Historians may look back and find it baffling that nail salons opened before churches — and often with the acquiescence of the churches.

Phil Murphy told Tucker Carlson that he had consulted with church leaders, as if to say that their submission justified his lack of interest in the First Amendment. His attitude seemed to be: If they don’t care, why should you?

But that submissiveness is itself a symptom of a de-Christianized age. While abortionists demand that they remain free to ply their trade, many churches passively accepted the bullying of political figures. But as Barr points out, the zeitgeist that allows for that unequal treatment is alien to the Judeo-Christian origins of the country. It is precisely in moments of crisis that constitutional safeguards are needed to stave off secularist tyranny.

George Neumayr
George Neumayr
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George Neumayr, a senior editor at The American Spectator, is co-author of No Higher Power: Obama’s War on Religious Freedom.
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