Letter: Regarding ‘Our First Amendment Rights’

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Due to the pandemic, local residents have foregone musical events, club meetings, etc. for months. Advocates of religious liberty, however, are citing the First Amendment and claiming that restrictions on their right to worship are unfair.

It is a medical fact that church services have high risk-potential, based upon crowding, singing, duration of services, and sermonizing (Johns Hopkins researchers found three or more visits to a house of worship in the previous two weeks was associated with 16-fold increase in virus infection).

This unique combination of factors does not exist at a grocery store or other retail business. In Harvest Rock Church vs. Newsom, Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s brief pointed out that “The restrictions on indoor worship activities are the same as — or more permissive than — those imposed on comparable secular gatherings that occur indoors and pose an equivalent threat to public health.”

People at the grocery store or laundry do not crowd together and sing. Categorizing churches as “essential businesses” relates to providing “food, shelter, social services and homeless services”, not the “dynamic of joining with fellow believers” in worship. Social services do not depend upon worship services. To grant churches special consideration unwisely elevates the right to worship over the need to protect public safety.

Spiking virus cases (2,634 deaths per day in the U.S. this week) and an overwhelmed medical system have triggered a statewide outdoor-only rule on all large gatherings, including for worship. The state restrictions have no relation to the religious content of messaging in churches, temples or mosques. Mr. Collis, whom Mr. Hellewell quotes, asserted in an interview, “The problem we have is the tendency of most people not to want to recognize the religious freedom of others.” That frames “religious freedom” as under assault, when in fact the claims for religious liberty represent an effort to establish legal protection for otherwise socially unacceptable behaviors, such as preventing your child from getting a life-saving transfusion, or discrimination based upon race, sexual orientation or gender. (Mr. Collis’ church defended polygamy for 60 years, claiming “religious liberty.”)

The state’s restrictions meet Mr. Collis’ condition of being “essentially neutral and generally applicable”, based upon a “compelling [government] interest” in the general welfare (not dying), and “narrowly focused”, based upon epidemiological science. They are not targeting religion. They are targeting the likelihood that a virus will kill you or a member of your family, including possibly your Beautiful Wife.

Gary Stewart, Laguna Beach

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