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Caesar, God and the Lockdowns

Scientists work in a lab testing COVID-19 samples

As governors consider how to ease their lockdowns, they might take a moment to read a pair of unanimous opinions this month from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. They rebuke the idea of giving office parks greater pandemic leeway than churches.

A March order by Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear barred “mass gatherings,” including religious ones. Offices and factories were exempt if they followed “appropriate social distancing.” Other orders said that only “life sustaining” enterprises could stay open. That included law firms, laundromats and liquor stores, but not churches.

When Maryville Baptist Church in Louisville held an Easter service, some worshipers went inside. But a loudspeaker in the parking lot allowed sequestered faithful to stay in their cars. State police placed notices on vehicles, including occupied ones, explaining that congregants were breaking the law. The police took down license-plate numbers. The church sued.

“It’s not always easy to decide what is Caesar’s and what is God’s—and that’s assuredly true in the context of a pandemic,” a Sixth Circuit panel wrote on May 2. That said: “The Governor has offered no good reason so far for refusing to trust the congregants who promise to use care in worship in just the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and laundromat workers to do the same. Are they not often the same people, going to work on one day and attending worship on another?”

Or this comparison: “Why is it safe to wait in a car for a liquor store to open but dangerous to wait in a car to hear morning prayers?” The question “is more difficult,” the court concluded, for gatherings inside a sanctuary. But it temporarily blocked Kentucky from prohibiting the drive-in service. The Governor, in a subsequent court filing, pointed to news reports of 50 to 100 people inside the church.

The Sixth Circuit followed up with another opinion on May 9 freeing the church’s in-person services. “Assuming all of the same precautions are taken, why can someone safely walk down a grocery store aisle but not a pew?” the court wrote in Roberts v. Neace. “While the law may take periodic naps during a pandemic, we will not let it sleep through one.”

Gov. Beshear has now excluded churches from his original order. Kudos to the judges for a reminder that the Constitution requires neutral treatment of religion, even in a pandemic.

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Source: Caesar, God and the Lockdowns – WSJ

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