I have never been a particularly religious person. Back when I was young and knew everything, I considered myself anti-religious, confusing the churches themselves with the politicians who merely used the rhetoric of religion to hector or control or even just win elections. I grew up in a place with a much more robust religious tradition in Nevada, and in many ways that my teenage know-it-all-self could not even comprehend, I took it for granted.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate and understand the crucial role organized religion plays in keeping a free society free. Winston Churchill spoke for me when he said, “I could hardly be called a pillar of the Church. I am more in the nature of a buttress, for I support it from the outside.”
There is a reason that evil and brutally oppressive governments, such as China’s communist regime, seek to so thoroughly limit and oppress independent religious communities and the right to freely exercise their faiths. Religious institutions serve as a source of autonomous authority from government bureaucrats, and tyrants hate competition. Their charitable efforts provide safety nets independent of the state, with fewer (or of a different nature) strings attached. (Given the government’s total faceplant in its ability to provide financial assistance to the jobless, I’m happy not to give them a monopoly on assisting the needy.)
The more independent sources of authority exist, the less powerful any single one of them can become – the American tradition of checks and balances against too much power consolidated in any one person or institution is not limited only to federalism or competing branches of government. In this way, churches and synagogues and mosques are a blessing to me, even if I don’t attend services.
Brutal repression is not the only threat churches – and therefore all free people – face. Certainly there are plenty of self-inflicted wounds religious organizations have suffered from over the millennia, which are collectively why I wouldn’t want any given religion to be the sole source of moral or legal authority in my society, either. But government regulation, even if not overtly or intentionally hostile to religion, can be just as destructive and pernicious. (And it’s worth remembering that if you want religion out of government, it’s best to keep government out of religion, too.)
Indeed, sometimes the most well-meaning rules can be the most dangerous. As noted ponderer of religiosity C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “[T]hose who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Fortunately, American religious institutions recognize this, and have the fortitude to fight back against undue infringement upon their rights. This week, nearly two hundred Nevada religious leaders signed on to a letter “asking” Gov. Sisolak to “allow” them to open their houses of worship again, at least giving them the same deference as is currently being offered to restaurants.
When asked about the letter on Friday afternoon during his press conference (an event where he said little and communicated even less), the governor claimed not to have read it, although he admitted being aware of it. That’s too bad, because if he had, he may have recognized the missive for the politely veiled legal demand letter that it was. The churches weren’t asking to reopen, they were informing the governor that his directives aimed at religious institutions were illegal (because they are), and that he could either modify his order or be sued. And after Mr. Sisolak’s very wrong answer Friday, where he merely shrugged off the letter and said nothing would change in the foreseeable, expect to see a filed lawsuit in federal court this week, and sooner rather than later.
I understand they are trying to be respectful, and are still hoping Mr. Sisolak sees the light, but I thought the various pastors and rabbis should have been more blunt. They could have simply announced they were opening under the same guidelines as grocery stores or restaurants, and dared the governor to reap the political and legal whirlwind that would come from arresting or even citing throngs of parishioners and clergy.
The First Amendment does not grant permission for Americans to freely exercise their religions; it protects a right we already have. Constitutionally speaking, a government official cannot abridge this right unless the regulation is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest, is neutral to the religion being affected, and is the least restrictive means for accomplishing that objective. It is no defense that the over-regulator means well, or would personally like to attend church with his mother.
If Mr. Sisolak could actually prove that more than 10 people in ANY building would cause a disease to spiral out of control, killing thousands, and if such a rule were uniformly applied and enforced, churches would be on the same footing as everyone else. But he cannot prove that (the more data we get, the more evidence we seem to have to the contrary), and he is not uniformly applying such a rule even if he could. If restaurants and retail outfits can open at half-capacity, surely people can just as safely feed their souls once a week with masks and elbow room in the pews. And for all the mask-shamers out there who are upset that people aren’t taking mitigation measures seriously, remember that there is nothing more likely to make people ignore government suggestions or even mandates than that same government acting incoherently and self-contradictory in its emergency orders.
I don’t usually attend church services. Nevertheless, their current arbitrary and capricious prohibition hurts me, and hurts you as well. If this governor can so carelessly and so needlessly hobble the free exercise of this fundamental rights, even as he doubtlessly doesn’t like doing so, the next governor can do the same with any other constitutionally protected right – and that guy/gal may not be so well-intentioned in the abridgement.
By challenging the government on religious liberty grounds, these pastors are working to protect all of the rights enjoyed by all of the people. Whether you’re a believer in God or not, any believer in American civil liberties cannot help but feel blessed by the fight for freedom being politely but firmly waged by this diverse coalition of religious community leaders.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected].