He really said it—and just three days before Easter. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer actually threatened that churches attempting even to meet in cars for a “drive-in” service would face police officers in the parking lot, “to record license plates of all vehicles in attendance.”
You have been warned. Even as almost all religious leaders have cooperated and the vast majority of religious assemblies have been suspended due to the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis, some government leaders, all the way from assorted governors and mayors to health department heads, have evidently decided that now is the time to march into the unthinkable—to threaten government sanctions against Christian churches and individual Christians who are not holding in-room assemblies.
They are taking names and taking numbers. At least that was the plan, until U.S. District Court Judge Justin R. Walker quickly issued a temporary restraining order the day before Easter, declaring: “On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter.”
Sadly, Mayor Fischer was not alone. Kentucky’s governor, Andy Beshear, also a Democrat, stopped short of disallowing drive-in services, but warned against them. Earlier in the pandemic, Beshear had singled out church services for cancelation.
To his credit, he did correct that overreach, issuing a generally applicable order against all public assemblies. That ban included high school basketball games, which, in effect, put a damper on Kentucky’s unofficial state religion.
There is a clear pattern here, and it should set off alarm bells from sea to shining sea. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak tweeted on April 8 that drive-in services would not be allowed. In Mendocino County, California, the public health authorities even mandated that churches streaming their services by video could include no singing. In case after case, churches that are obeying and respecting generally applicable “do not assemble” orders are facing threats that are patently unconstitutional.
To be clear, my own congregation did not even consider a “drive-in” worship service. As a high-church Baptist (yes, we exist), I consider a service in a parked car to be something short of a New Testament vision.
But that is irrelevant to the constitutional issues at stake. Furthermore, I have publicly supported generally applicable shelter-in-place and do-not-assemble orders in light of genuine concern for public health. Love of neighbor means cooperating to slow the spread of a deadly virus.
But telling a congregation that it cannot hold a service in a parking lot, with families in cars? Threatening to take license numbers? As Judge Walker rightly stated, such threats from public officials are “stunning” and unconstitutional. Such threats also undermine the credibility officials badly need when issuing orders and policies that apply to all assemblies.
From coast to coast, various government officials have also issued unconstitutional inanities about what is and is not “essential” for many shelter-in-place orders. Declaring religious services to be “non-essential” is beyond the rightful role of government. Instead, officials would be wise to issue policies limiting or banning assemblies for all groups for a limited period of time and consistently applied.
Mayor Fischer’s order-in Louisville commanded that drive-in worship services be banned, but drive-up liquor stores remained legal. As we say in Kentucky, that’s a sure way to get Baptists fired up mad.
As Judge Walker observed, “if beer is ‘essential,’ so is Easter.” I wish I could say, “only in Kentucky,” but that would be factually wrong. Similar nonsense on what constitutes “essential” is found across the nation.
The policy in Mendocino County is particularly chilling. It would make sense to require that designated singers in a video-streamed worship service must follow all guidelines about distancing, etc. That would almost surely be respected. But a ban on singing? In Christian worship? This is not a generally applicable order, fairly applied, it is a government authority intruding upon the integrity of Christian worship.
Martin Luther once commented that singing the great hymns of the faith would drive the devil to distraction. The Mendocino County health department order would have been beyond Luther’s imagination. He would have responded with language this Baptist cannot employ.
There is another dimension to this that we dare not miss. Many of the officials trampling on religious liberty are elected Democrats, a party that has been trending in a secular direction for decades now.
And—don’t miss this—Judge Justin R. Walker, a protégé of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was nominated by President Donald Trump on April 3 to fill a vacancy on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Only the Supreme Court itself exceeds the DC circuit in importance.
As the Wall Street Journal warned in an editorial, “Get Ready for Another Court Fight.” No doubt about that, and Judge Walker has just reminded us all of what is actually at stake. Remember, they are taking down license numbers.