BY JEFF LOWE DISPATCH RECORD
Gov. Greg Abbott took a positive step by acknowledging in his March 31 order that religious services are essential, as is the freedom for people to make a living. The possible tension between executive orders and the free exercise of religion could still play out over the coming weeks.
From the wording of the order, it was unclear whether religious gatherings are limited to a 10-person maximum and to what extent those who congregate would be protected from prosecution.
Just days earlier in Florida and Louisiana, pastors were arrested for holding church services. Those arrests were made under the assumption that temporary executive orders override First Amendment protections, which are permanent fixtures in our Constitution.
As always, the protection of life and personal liberty are essential, and our nation must be committed to both, as the deadly coronavirus spreads, and America searches for solutions.
Those who have heeded urgent warnings from medical experts understand that we must take responsibility as individuals to avoid unnecessary risk of exposure. The government likewise is attempting to use any means to get a handle on the outbreak.
While many activities and conveniences can be sacrificed temporarily, core rights guaranteed by the Constitution should not be viewed as disposable in times of crisis.
Emergency orders made by multiple governors, even if they are well-intended, raise questions. To those who say executive orders are justified in forcing the closure of churches, businesses or peaceful gatherings, what personal rights should remain beyond government’s reach? Rights expressly stated in the Bill of Rights are a logical place to draw the line. A word-for-word transcript of those 10 amendments is available at https://www.archives.gov/files/legislative/resources/education/bill-of-rights/images/handout-3.pdf .
The Texas Constitution, Article 1, Section 29, goes even further, saying, “everything in this Bill of Rights is excepted out of the general powers of government, and shall forever remain inviolate [free from violation], and all laws contrary thereto, or to the following provisions, shall be void.” See https://statutes.capitol.texas.gov/Docs/CN/htm/CN.1.htm.
The Texas Constitution, Article 1, Sec. 6. reads "FREEDOM OF WORSHIP: All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences. No man shall be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent. No human authority ought, in any case whatever, to control or interfere with the rights of conscience in matters of religion, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious society or mode of worship. But it shall be the duty of the Legislature to pass such laws as may be necessary to protect equally every religious denomination in the peaceable enjoyment of its own mode of public worship."
Most of us in Lampasas, Texas, would not surrender our Second Amendment freedoms if there were an outbreak of deadly shootings. Likewise, why should First Amendment freedoms – like peaceful gatherings on private property – be banned and become a jailable offense?
People of different faiths may not agree with or understand the decision to meet in person in a church or synagogue in this current situation. But others do believe in supernatural healing and in the power of praying together in groups. What in the Constitution says those faith practices can be taken away from anyone, even in times of emergency?
Mandatory orders have been and will be used, but they are not the only means of fighting COVID-19 and the resulting economic aftermath.
Privately owned whiskey companies have changed production to make alcohol-based hand sanitizer, a much-needed item.
Fanatics Inc., a sports equipment company, has partnered with Major League Baseball to produce medical masks and gowns from the same material used for jerseys.
Companies from Remington Arms to auto manufacturers have offered to mass-produce ventilators.
Private COVID-19 testing labs have increased the number of diagnoses.
“If you want to get the kind of blanket testing and availability that anybody can get it,” prominent immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “you have to embrace the private sector.”
By April 1, private labs in Texas had conducted more than 10 times the number of tests that public labs had.
The death toll from the virus unfortunately has kept climbing – in places with early, strict, shelter-in-place orders as well as in states that avoided widespread mandates. Mandates are not an automatic solution to the crisis.
The authorities should continue to share new information as it is available about possible treatments, symptoms and new discoveries related to the virus; use portions of the budget already allocated to healthcare to fund emergency supplies; and if travel restrictions are needed, they should focus on restricting an influx of non-citizens rather than limiting the free movement of U.S. citizens.
Some state and Lampasas-area orders have made an effort to accommodate businesses and individuals’ rights to buy food, exercise, hunt, fish, etc. As citizens, we appreciate that. Moving forward, we should carefully evaluate emergency measures and not rush toward executive orders at any level.
Let’s be safe and respect the authorities, but ensure that if and when the virus subsides, these emergency orders do not become a lasting precedent that redefine our concept of freedom.
JEFF LOWE is a staff writer for the Dispatch Record.