One of the major difficulties in deciding how to respond to the various lockdown orders around the country is the question of prudence; what sort of behavior is prudent in light of the pandemic? This question is one which the lockdown orders have entirely sidestepped, which is why the title of this post references sleight of hand.
As churches decide whether and how to reopen, they have faced not only questions of legality but also of prudent policy concerning this new infectious disease. We must grant that it is at least a possibility that in person meetings in a hypothetical time of plague might be a bad idea. In real life, we must assess whether in person meetings at this time are a bad idea. This requires a judgment call about the severity of COVID19 and its prevalence in the community. Once you have determined some general notion of the risks, you must weigh those risks against the value of gathering in the name of Christ. All this would be necessary even if there had not been a single lockdown order issued.
The funny thing is that the lockdown orders ignore the question of prudence. They don’t address it. Instead they make a general assumption that we must do “all we can” and then proceed to making judgments about what’s essential and what’s non-essential. This is how you get police trying to arrest solitary joggers for running on the beach, or lone paddle boarders somewhere off the pacific coast. Everyone knows those activities represent no threat to public health. The lockdowns we have had don’t concern themselves with identifying threats to public health. Instead, these lockdown orders undertake to tell us all what is really important in life. That’s why jogging on the beach is off limits in California, not because it’s dangerous, but because it’s trivial.
This is the same reasoning that has led to showdowns between churches (with the support of U.S. Department of Justice) and various cities and states. Christians in Louisville, Kentucky wanted to have a drive-in church service where congregants would listen to the sermon on the radio. Is that dangerous? Not at all. But is it essential? That’s where the Governor of Kentucky and the Mayor of Louisville made their stand, claiming it was not essential, and further claiming that its non-essential status meant they could criminalize it.
Here’s where any American worth his salt says “wait a minute, what about the first amendment?” If the first amendment means anything, it means that government officials are not permitted to make judgment calls on the value of religious activities. They’re not supposed to weigh in on whether baptism is essential, or alter calls, or communion, or church services. They’re not permitted to make value judgments on whether Presbyterian or Baptist services are essential. In fact, the first amendment requires them to give the greatest possible latitude to the free exercise of religion. If you feel that baptism is essential, the government must respect that. If you feel that an old camp meeting is essential, they must respect that. They must respect the Latin Mass, the holy rollers, the snake handlers and all the rest.
Now it would be incoherent to expect a governor to think that all these religious traditions are valid and true. That’s not the sort of respect required by the constitution. Rather, the governor must respect that it isn’t his decision, which is another way of saying that people have the right to make their own judgments about the validity and importance of religious observances.
Are there limits to religious freedom? Depending on how you frame it, yes. The principle communicated by saying “your right to use your fists ends where my nose begins” covers most of it. American citizens do not get to bring actual harm to others and label it “religion.” But neither do American governors get to prohibit the non-essential swinging of fists.