There’s nothing like a crisis to bring clarity. The response of some mayors and governors to the coronavirus pandemic in recent days has made it clear they think they have unlimited and arbitrary power over their fellow citizens, that they can order them to do or not do just about anything under the guise of protecting public health.
We’ve now witnessed local and state governments issue decrees about what people can and cannot buy in stores, arrest parents playing with their children in public parks, yank people off public buses at random, remove basketball rims along with private property, ticket churchgoers, and in one case try—and fail—to chase down a lone runner on an empty beach. All of this, we’re told, is for our own good.
Some Authorities Are Targeting Christians
The most egregious example of this outpouring of authoritarianism was an attempt by Louisville, Kentucky, Mayor Greg Fischer to ban drive-in church services on Easter. On Holy Thursday, one day before Christians were to begin their most important religious celebrations of the year, Fischer declared that drive-in Easter services would be illegal.
To remove all doubt about his seriousness, he also threatened arrest and criminal penalties for anyone who dared violate his order, and in an Orwellian twist, invited people to snitch on their fellow citizens. Fischer justified this by saying it was “to save lives.”
Thankfully, a federal judge made short work of the mayor’s idiotic power-grab, issuing a temporary restraining order against the city of Louisville on Saturday, writing so as to remove all doubt, “The Mayor’s decision is stunning. And it is, ‘beyond all reason,’ unconstitutional.”
The mayor shouldn’t have needed a federal judge to tell him that. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the U.S. Constitution should know the government can’t single out religious worship for special regulations and prohibitions, which is precisely what the clueless Fischer did here. His order would have barred Christians from driving to their church parking lots and sitting in their vehicles for Easter services—all while maintaining proper social distancing—while imposing no such restrictions on drive-up and drive-through restaurants, liquor stores, grocery stores, or parking lots generally.
Mayors or governors—or even presidents—can no more single out Christians on Easter than they can single out Muslims during Ramadan or Jews on Yom Kippur. If you’re going to ban parking in parking lots, it has to apply to everyone everywhere.
But this didn’t just happen in Louisville. Two churches in Greenville, Mississippi, that were holding drive-in services for Holy Week said police showed up and ordered churchgoers to leave or face a $500 fine.
In a video posted on Twitter from Pastor Hamilton of King James Bible Baptist Church in Greenville, a police officer tells Hamilton that because of the governor’s order, “your rights are suspended.” To the good pastor’s credit, he correctly notes that the governor cannot suspend his rights because his rights come from God, not the government.
Pandemic or not, this stuff has no place in American society. Petty tyranny of the kind these mayors and local officials are scheming is wholly alien to our customs and way of life, and destructive to the social contract on which our nation is built.
Thankfully, the Department of Justice has taken notice of this fledgling authoritarian streak among the country’s mayors and governors. A DOJ spokesman said Saturday Attorney General William Barr is “monitoring” government regulation of religious services and may take action against local governments as early as this week.
Overreaching Orders Expose Arbitrary Rule
That’s a good start, but the targeting of churches, while undoubtedly the most offensive overreach by state and local governments, is hardly the only instance of government gone wild. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has taken it upon herself to declare what items are and are not “essential,” dictating to grocery stores what they can and cannot sell as part of a sweeping order issued Friday.
Among the nonessential, and therefore banned, items are fruit and vegetable plants and seeds. Never mind that growing fruits and vegetables at home right now would help maintain social distancing during the pandemic, the governor has spoken and her word is law. (Lottery tickets, on the other hand, are still permitted.)
Beyond the fruit and vegetable ban, the governor’s order is an object lesson in the absurdity and inconsistency of arbitrary power and rule by fiat. Michiganders are banned from traveling “between residences” if they own a cottage or a summer home, but the ban only applies to Michigan residents, so an out-of-stater with a cottage in the Upper Peninsula could presumably still visit. The ban also still allows travel between states, so if a Michigander has a cottage in Wisconsin or Ohio, he can travel without fear of being arrested or fined by state police.
Why did Whitmer tailor her order this way? Probably because she knows she has no authority to ban travel between states, or issue orders to Americans generally—no more than a mayor has the authority to shut down drive-in Easter services in his city.
That these officials need to be reminded of that, and in some cases restrained by federal judges, bodes very ill for America. Now more than ever, we need leaders who don’t just care about protecting us from the pandemic, but also care about preserving liberty in a time of crisis.