Our First Amendment Rights
It’s been 10 months since I’ve been in a Laguna church. The Beautiful Wife and I have worshipped at home and online during the pandemic, but it lacks the dynamic of joining with fellow believers. Are California churches mostly limited to outdoors or online worship, unfairly restricted versus, for example, retail stores? It seems so. I will note that Orange County indoor retail stores are currently limited to 20 percent of their typical capacity. I’ve been doing home projects and the hardware stores I visit are bustling. Is there a First Amendment issue of religious freedom here?
I heard an online talk on the First Amendment the other night. Sponsored by the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it featured Steven T. Collis, a University of Texas law school professor and expert on religious rights. Collis explained balancing First Amendment protections wisely provided by America’s founding fathers: The Establishment Clause, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” and the Free Exercise Clause “… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”.
Supreme Court protection of religious rights has been inconsistent through our history, Collis explained, but has evolved to two basic tests: First, government acts must be “essentially neutral and generally applicable.” Second, the acts must have a “compelling [government] interest and be narrowly tailored to meet that interest.” I’m no lawyer, but this guidance makes sense to me.
U.S. Supreme Court freedom of worship cases have lately been in the news. New York state had limited church attendance to 10 people in “red zones,” or 25 in “orange zones” without the building size consideration given to secular entities. The Supreme Court ruled for the churches, barring such restrictions. This may have guided the court in directing a California court to reconsider restrictions challenged by Pasadena’s large Harvest Rock Church. This week, the Court found in favor of churches in New Jersey and Colorado. It’s unusual that churches must seek help from the courts to exercise their constitutional rights, yet it’s good that some have the courage to do so, lest these rights be lost.
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has a final book out, appropriately titled “Morality, Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.” The book opens with a profound introduction, “A free society is a moral achievement.” Rabbi Sacks quotes historian Will Durant, an atheist, “There is no significant example in history… of a society successfully maintaining a moral life without the aid of religion.” More than ever, we need our churches for their moral influence.
To return to the talk on First Amendment religious rights, listeners were encouraged to be both creative and responsible in exercising their faith during the pandemic to better light the world around them. In Laguna, churches have a remarkable history of lifting up and supporting the homeless. It has been a partnership of church and city, not always perfect, but in the end a worthy work. We should fight for religious rights, but also focus on our opportunities to do good. There’s meaning in that.
Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]