A lifetime ago Bob Dylan said “The times, they are a-changin’.” As I look back to that song in 1964 I would have to agree with him; especially when I consider what has occurred in our nation during this current pandemic.
There have been many confusing and controversial things that have occurred at this time in our nation’s life, and I plan on speaking to a few of them soon, but the one I want to focus on today is what I will refer to as the suspension of our First Amendment rights, especially the one guaranteeing our freedom of religion.
I realize many will say our constitutional rights were not suspended, but I beg to differ. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion” (emphasis mine). What we have witnessed recently in most parts of this nation is a clear prohibiting of religions to freely exercise their beliefs.
I have discussed this with a number of people, and it hit me square between the eyes the other day when one very kind Christian said, in the course of our discussion, “Baptisms can wait.” I began to think about that statement, and I thought to myself, “What if the government told you that you could not lead anyone to salvation in Christ until this pandemic had passed?”
Without a doubt she would have said, and rightly so, the government would have no right to do that! But for many people, possibly for many religions, that is exactly what they did in telling us we could not gather, or that it had to be ten people or less (some areas are not even allowing that), and then you had to be at least six feet apart.
But what about those groups of Christians who believe that salvation isn’t attained unless you are baptized in water, with the current congregation in attendance as witnesses? Then I began to think that there are likely many religious groups that require in-person gatherings of their ‘congregations’ in close proximity in order to exercise their beliefs.
The U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee freedom of religion for just the form of religion you are comfortable with, but freedom for all religions. Without question that has been horribly trampled upon during this pandemic. And not only was the free practice of religion trampled on, it was done so in a discriminatory way.
More than ten people at a time could go into Walmart or Home Depot. In addition multiple cars could drive into a Best Buy or a restaurant parking lot to conduct business, but not into a church parking lot for a “drive-in” service. I realize some will defend that by saying that those enterprises are essential. Who are you to determine what religious practices are essential for others? As I pointed out, some believe if you die without having been physically baptized that you are lost for all eternity. What you believe about that belief is not the issue; what they believe, and the free practice of that belief, is what the First Amendment protects.
Best Buy is not protected by the Constitution, but religion is!
It doesn’t say the free practice of your religion is protected unless there is a crisis, or unless government doesn’t feel your religious practice is essential.
If people can go to the post office, or Home Depot, or Walmart, then they can certainly pursue the practice of worshiping God as they see necessary, especially if it is demanded in their long established sacred writings.
The fact that many states or municipalities trampled on First Amendment rights is exactly why Attorney General Barr recently warned public officials that constitutional rights are not suspended because of COVID-19. The “one-size fits all” approach that states, counties, and cities have applied to religious groups is not only unconstitutional, it is discriminatory.
Certainly it is wise to practice social distancing as much as possible, but to say you can only have ten people in a room, regardless if it is 400 square feet or 6,000 square feet is beyond senseless.
Many of us have been extremely patient during this pandemic, but it is clear that many people in authority throughout this country have decided that citizens have no common sense, so to protect us from ourselves they must lock us in our homes until it is safe to come out, even if that means suspending our constitutional rights until some constantly moving future date.
What has happened is unacceptable, and it must not be allowed to occur again – ever!
Obviously if people are comfortable with complying with secular authorities regarding their religious freedoms they are free to do so, and anyone who would try to pressure them to exercise their religious freedoms would be wrong to do so. Similarly those who do not feel compelled to exercise their religious freedoms during such times as these should not try to shame or pressure others to stop following their religious consciences.
One of the main reasons, if not the main reason, people came to the American colonies in the first place was to escape religious persecution and discrimination. It appears that oppression of religion has been growing among us as we have “progressed” as a nation.
I believe religious people of each state, and of our nation as a whole, must restate our need to be free of religious oppression during a crisis, and any other time. Certainly when sitting U.S. Senators can openly state that a Christian is disqualified from being appointed to a federal position because they “actively live their faith,” a statement in direct violation of Article VI, Clause 3 of our Constitution, which three senators did just two years ago, shows how tolerated religious discrimination has become. And when public officials feel free to openly discriminate based on religion, others feel comfortable to follow suit.
In the past number of years many people have been persecuted by states because of their religious beliefs, and even though the U.S. Supreme Court has each time backed those individual’s right to their freedom of religious expression, the attacks by certain states continue; sometimes aimed at the same person who was just exonerated by the Supreme Court.
I could go on, but my point is simply this, there is a fomenting atmosphere in our nation that is increasingly tolerant toward religious discrimination, even oppression, and it must stop.
People may think I am too concerned about what has recently occurred, but clearly I am not, and if you will look at what has just happened in light of the precious document that was drafted to protect you in so many ways from government, you will see that I am not; just the opposite — we are not concerned enough.
As George Washington said, “The liberty enjoyed by the people of these States of worshipping Almighty God, agreeable to their consciences, is not only among the choicest of their blessings, but also of their rights.”
Jon McCartney is pastor of First Baptist Church of Tooele.