By Ed Mechmann
Our nation is in the grips of simultaneous crises. We are still struggling to contain the deadly CORONA-19 pandemic. We are confronting the complex and emotionally-charged issue of racism in our justice system and society as a whole. We are also testing the limits of constitutionally-protected peaceful protest and law enforcement tactics. And we are seeing destructive anarchy in our streets.
Amidst it all, we have once again been given proof that religious liberty is a second-class right.
It would be otiose for me to write much about the race crisis. The Cardinal and the US bishops have already spoken very clearly and plainly about the situation. All agree that racism and police brutality are unacceptable, peaceful protest should be encouraged, and violence and looting are anathema. Our bishops have also laid out some steps that can be taken by ordinary people like me: acknowledge the reality of racism in our society and our institutions, listen to the stories of our brothers and sisters who have suffered from racism in history and in the present, learn about the impact of racism and then get involved in efforts to pray and work for conversion of both hearts and systems, and examine my own conscience.
But consider the response of government officials to the public protests, compared to how they are treating religious gatherings. The protests are lauded, even though they clearly violate quarantine orders and social distancing rules. Some government officials have made this point, but only in muted tones with nothing said about enforcement. In contrast, just a few weeks ago, a Jewish group was openly condemned and threatened with arrest for gathering in much the same fashion for a funeral. And all religious gatherings are still prohibited and will remain prohibited for weeks at least.
The right to peaceful assembly, free speech, and petitioning the government for redress of grievances are right there in the First Amendment. So I applaud the peaceful protestors who are making their voices heard. I’ve marched for the causes I support, so I support others when they do the same.
But the right to free exercise of religion is also in the First Amendment. The government has an obligation to respect these rights, treat people even-handedly, and not discriminate on the basis of favored or disfavored viewpoints. It is discriminatory for the government to permit and praise protests against police violence, but then criticize and prohibit religious exercise.
And make no mistake, that’s what’s happening. Here is what the Mayor said today, in response to a question about the disparate treatment of protests and religion: “When you see a nation, an entire nation simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism, I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services.”
Never mind that if it’s a matter of history, Christian worship goes back over 2,000 years, Jewish over 3,000, and Muslim over 1,300. Or that the worship of God is far more important than operating a store. Or that it doesn’t make sense to hear and respect the deeply-felt opinions and experience of African-Americans but ignore those of Christians, Jews and Muslims. Logic is not the main factor here.
It is clear that in the eyes of our government officials, the politically preferred viewpoint of anti-racism is favored and allowed, while the unpopular one of religious worship is belittled and denigrated. This is no longer a question of neutral public health laws that are applied generally to everyone without discrimination. This is indifference and incomprehension at best, bias and discrimination at worst.
There is no question that gatherings of many people, especially indoors, have a heightened risk of spreading the coronavirus. We are perfectly willing and able to follow appropriate sanitary and social distancing rules as prescribed by public health officials. We are not in the streets openly flouting those rules and endangering others.
But we’re not being given the same chance as the protestors to exercise our constitutional rights. That’s what it means to be relegated to second-class status.