Don’t Get Fooled Again by Religious-Freedom Restrictions
At the one-year anniversary of COVID-19’s arrival from China to the U.S., one thing is certain – the threat of government infringement on religious liberty under the guise of public health is here to stay. As The Who’s Pete Townshend remarked, “…meet the new boss same as the old boss.”
In the span of a year, we went from staying at home for two weeks to “flatten the curve” to public-health officials threatening citizens potentially exposed to COVID-19 with “involuntary quarantine.”
With houses of worship deemed “non-essential,” many churches across the nation were forced to choose between the dictates of conscience and the dictates of their governors. Most took reasonable COVID-related precautions, but all who gathered decided that their ultimate obligation, obedience, and worship belongs to one who sits on a throne far higher than any governor’s mansion.
Each person who entered a church with fellow believers during the pandemic had come to the conclusion that, despite physical risk to themselves and others they care about, spiritual health required their presence in worship. For them, it was a matter of conscience. The First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty has as its essential element the right of conscience.
Faced with the same choice, other Christians, and adherents of other faiths or no faith at all, might have arrived at different conclusions. In a free and civil society, however, it is not for one free man to say how other free men should act in matters of faith and conscience. It is all of our duty to defend our right to make informed judgments in such matters. Because all men are created equal, government derives its power from the consent of the governed. Therefore, a government official should be the last person on earth to intervene in matters between men and God.
The belief that freedom and morality are inextricably linked is what led our founders to protect the role of religion in civil society. Freedom, even when imperfectly exercised by imperfect men, is still good. It is why we have not set aside our rights in times of war, economic collapse, or pandemics in the past, and it why we should not do so today.
This past year demonstrates the truth of C.S. Lewis’s observation that the most oppressive tyranny is the one “sincerely exercised for the good of its victims.” From his work God in the Dock, Lewis reminds us that:
“…those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience…This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”
Today’s tyrants have not only the approval of their own consciences but a cacophony of approval from all corners of government and media. Their volume may make them powerful, but it doesn’t make them right.
Thankfully, we don’t have to “tip our hats to a new constitution,” as the iconic song by The Who described. But if we allow government officials to ignore the old one whenever this emergency or the next one suits them, we may find ourselves on our knees praying, with The Who, that “we don’t get fooled again.”
Lathan Watts is Director of Public Affairs for First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm and think tank exclusively dedicated to defending religious liberty for all Americans.