On Monday, March 30, Florida police arrested a Tampa-based pastor for violating Republican Governor Ron De Santis’s COVID-19 “Safer-At-Home” order, casting into view one of the most important and profound questions of our – or any – time:
To whom does one ultimately answer? God, or the state?
According to Tamara Lush and Chris O’Meara, of AP, police placed under arrest Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne after detectives said he held two Sunday services at his Tampa place of worship, violating De Santis’ “Safer-At-Home” command that, in part, bars church gatherings of ten or more people.
According to jail records, Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne turned himself in to authorities Monday afternoon in Hernando County, where he lives. He was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. Bail was set at $500, according to the jail's website, and he was released after posting bond.
Meanwhile, Pastor Howard-Browne’s legal team has offered his side of the story:
'Not only did the church comply with the administrative order regarding six-foot distancing, it went above and beyond any other business to ensure the health and safety of the people,' said a statement from Liberty Counsel, Howard-Browne's law firm. 'Contrary to Sheriff Chronister’s allegation that Pastor Howard-Browne was ‘reckless,' the actions of Hillsborough Country and the Hernando County Sheriff are discriminatory against religion and church gatherings.'
Did Sheriff Chronister accuse Pastor Howard-Browne of being “reckless”? He sure did. And he did so in an insulting and contradictory way that flies in the face of syntax, logic, ethics, the US Constitution, and Christianity itself, saying at a news conference:
As a Sheriff’s office, we would never impede someone’s ability to lean on their religious beliefs as a means of comfort, but practicing those beliefs has to be done safely.
In other words, he most certainly WOULD impede if he thought that someone practicing his or her religious beliefs was not safe.
And here’s the rub.
Last night I made a decision to seek an arrest warrant for the pastor of a local church who intentionally and repeatedly chose to disregard the orders set in place by our President, our Governor, the CDC, and the Hillsborough County Policy Group. His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk…
This is extremely important to dissect, because it focuses on the core of many problems in the US.
First, the US Constitution does not grant the President any power remotely akin to ordering people to not congregate or forcing them to stay in their homes. Nor has President Trump made this an order, but a voluntary request. This Sheriff swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, and if he is so unfamiliar with its rules, he needs to brush-up.
Second, the Governor’s order, like that of many other Chief Execs of various states, is highly questionable on constitutional grounds. Not only does the First Amendment supposedly protect the right to worship, it also protects the right to assemble on public property. And this church is not even public property that relies on tax money the way the Sheriff’s offices do. It’s private property. In fact, it’s private property that traditionally is seen as a sanctuary from the government.
All over the US, governors, state legislators, and the slack-jawed, lackey press who cover them, adopt the mantel that a government can simply order places to close. But, as a new federal lawsuit by Pennsylvania-based bell maker Schulmerich Bells against PA Governor Thomas Wolf (D) reveals, such edicts conflict with the Constitution in stark and profound ways.
'The Governor has placed the cost of these Orders—issued for the benefit of the public—squarely upon the shoulders of private individuals and their families, and has failed to justly compensate affected parties for these takings undertaken for their benefit to the public,' the suit states. 'These uncompensated seizures violate the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.'
And that point is precisely right. University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein became famous with the publication of his landmark 1985 book, “Takings”, in which he traces the legal history and logical primacy of the concept that it’s not just the literal seizure of physical property that constitutes a taking. A regulation or mandate to operate a business in a certain way or -- in the cases of COVID-19 closure mandates – to CLOSE, is a form of property confiscation, a taking, and is constitutionally prohibited unless the governing body compensates affected persons.
But this isn’t stopping the politicians, and more than just Florida’s De Santis is engaging in this form of seizure and house arrest. Virginia’s infamous master of disguise, Governor Ralph Northam, has issued a similar edict, including gun stores in his list of places that should close (President Trump appears to have overridden that application to gun shops with his own federal move). Northam has made it a crime to hold a "religious event" of more than 10 people.
Which means something incredibly important.
It means that, if Christ were physically walking the Earth today, Northam, and any other politician who issued such an edict would, in fact…
…make the Last Supper a punishable crime.
This is not hyperbole. More than ten people attended Christ’s gathering as the government gears worked to arrest and crucify Him. He was the physical embodiment of the power greater than the state, and now, we are seeing just how the state is treating people who worship The Creator.
From Florida, to Virgina, to the pages of the New York Times, religious believers are not only being told to answer to the state above God, they are being blamed and scapegoated for the spread of COVID-19.
And this brings us back to Sheriff Chronister’s statement -- a statement in which he claimed that the pastor “put people at risk” – and how that claim is so importantly misguided
Howard-Browne “put” no one at risk. He did not kidnap people and bring them to his church. He opened his doors and people joined him, of their own free will. They put themselves at risk, Sheriff, and they have a God-given right -- they have the God-given free will -- to do so, to defy the dictates of the governor and any other man who would lift himself above them and try to control their lives. It is the tax-demanding government that forces people to go places and do things, like going to a possibly unsanitary jail. It is the government that jailed the Pastor, and government agents who can approach people and break the six-foot “distancing” rule whenever they desire.
As Ray Nothstine wrote about James Madison (known as the Father of the Bill of Rights):
Madison notes that man ‘has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.’ Furthermore, Madison declares this kind of property is ‘the most sacred.’
Private property and voluntary association used to be respected. There once was more private property in America, and people understood the difference between congregating on public property -- that is difficult to control for the spread of viruses, for example -- and private property, into which everyone enters voluntarily and assumes their own risk. And it used to be that Americans understood the fundamental Christian question about God-given free will versus the state.
As Good Friday and Easter approach, perhaps a few politicians should pick up a Bible and think about that.
UPDATE 4/3/2020: An earlier version of this piece referred to the CDC as a non-profit; it should have distinguished the Centers for Disease Control Foundation, which is the non-profit wing, from the CDC itself, which has its origin as a government agency during WWII.