On March 23, Massachusetts Gov. Charles Baker declared a public health emergency relating to COVID-19. He created a list of businesses and organizations he believes provide “essential services” and ordered all non-essential businesses to cease in-person operations. Constitutional freedoms derived from the Bill of Rights are not among the list of essential services, including the freedom to worship according to our consciences.
In Massachusetts, I can stand in a line of 200 people at a liquor store to buy a bottle of Maker’s Mark, but I am not afforded the same reasonable accommodations in the same-sized building across the street to receive the Sacraments of my salvation as a practicing Roman Catholic.
Last week, a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled that Baker “had no jurisdiction” to exclude gun shops from his list of “essential services,” stating that doing so “infringes on people’s rights to buy a firearm.” Judge Douglas Woodlock approved a preliminary injunction against the state, which went into effect on May 9.
Numerous governors have made similar rules that discriminate against natural rights, and they are being rightfully challenged in the courts. Last Friday, U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove issued a temporary restraining order against Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear for his enforcement of bans on “any in-person religious service which adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines.”
Sacraments Are More Important Than Mortal Life
The banning of in-person religious services presents a spiritual crisis for 1.8 million Roman Catholics in Massachusetts affected by Baker’s executive orders. The properties of Catholic Sacraments cannot be received through the television or other media sources. They must be received in person.
Through apostolic succession, Catholic priests have the power to confer Sacraments that contain properties of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. Without the reception of the sanctifying grace contained in Sacraments, Catholics are deprived of spiritual food necessary to fight off temptations to engage in the commission of mortal sin.
The properties of divinity in sanctifying grace ferment in our soul to affect how we think and act. They are the tools of our conversion and sanctification. Sacraments keep the devil suppressed in the lives of those who know how to use their power. Sacraments seed vocations, save marriages, and keep people from addictions. They are the power behind the efficacy of everything Catholics undertake or forbear.
Limitless Infringements on Constitutional Rights
Sacramental deprivation has serious and potentially life-changing effects upon the spiritual welfare, and in fact, the eternal salvation of Catholics. Yet numerous governors have completely ignored Americans’ constitutional rights to religious exercise in their shutdown orders. Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois recently announced he may even prohibit churches from opening for up to a year or more.
Timelines in Massachusetts are even more disturbing. A recent webinar conducted by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston predicted compliance with Baker’s orders would delay a return of religious civil liberties “two years or more.”
Alleged milestones that “must be met for any consideration of opening up” include a complete eradication of any symptom present in any kind of influenza and requirements for priests to set up “robust medical facilities” in every parish to take temperatures and conduct immunity testing. Even after meeting criteria of all three phases of the federal COVID response team, Sacraments may not resume due to the possibility of reactivation and resurgence. O’Malley speculated that “parish closures would go on forever.”
The imposition of these milestones upon religious freedom is extremely suspicious. Nothing of the sort is imposed upon hundreds of people waiting in lines to purchase plants at every Home Depot across the state.
When looking at latest available data, the irreparable harm being done seems wholly disproportionate to expected benefits. In New Hampshire, whose state motto ironically is “live free or die,” the entire population of 1.35 million was barred from earning a living for six weeks due to 85 (total) flu-related deaths. Massachusetts has seen about 5,000 COVID-19 deaths, or 0.08 percent of the state population.
Americans Are Fighting Back in the Courts
People are starting to fight back, and they are winning. Emergency police powers are subject to strict scrutiny in judicial review. To be lawful under the First Amendment, strict scrutiny mandates that government judgment calls contain no abridgment of constitutional rights unless executive orders are narrowly tailored by least restrictive means; advance a compelling interest; are unbiased, rational, and reasonable; are limited to powers conferred by statutes or the Constitution of the United States; and restrict other conduct producing substantial alleged harm of the same sort.
Based upon the burdens imposed to religious freedom, I filed a complaint on April 30 with the state Department of Justice alleging Baker’s executive orders violate the First Amendment. Baker took it upon himself to change the definition of religion and the reception of Sacraments from a First Amendment right to a non-essential business or “social gathering,” making the salvation of our immortal souls constitutionally subordinate to the authority of the government.
Baker is expected to announce his plan of reopening on May 18. If there are any restrictions on religious liberties that are not imposed upon secular activities, a motion for a preliminary injunction will swiftly follow seeking to restrain an unconstitutional overreach of power. The status of this case and others affecting religious freedom can be followed at Catholic ReligiousFreedom.
Obvious Discrimination Against Religion
Among other important cases is the federal lawsuit brought by Lighthouse Fellowship Church of Chincoteague, Virginia. The pastor filed suit and a motion for preliminary injunction to pause enforcement of Gov. Ralph Northam’s similar executive orders. The Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in the case stating the church has a strong case, as Northam’s executive orders allow liquor stores and other venues to hold gatherings of more than 10 people while banning the same activity in churches.
U.S. District Judge Arenda Allen denied the preliminary injunction, stating in her ruling that giving exemptions to secular businesses is necessary to “prevent joblessness at a time when people desperately need to retain their incomes and healthcare, and a time when unemployment is drastically rising.”
This is astounding. It implies Virginia officials knew putting people out of work would impose economic destitution, which they allowed for employees of religious institutions, but not employees of Michael’s craft stores.
In contrast, Kentucky Judge Van Tatenhove’s court order states, “the prohibition on religious services presently operating in the Commonwealth is beyond what was reasonably required for the safety of the public. If social distancing is good enough for Home Depot and Kroger, it is good enough for in-person religious services which, unlike the foregoing, benefit from constitutional protection.”