As part of the effort to slow down the spread of coronavirus, a number of state, county, and city governments have enacted limits on how many people can gather together. This is based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, many churches have opted to cancel in-person services until the crisis passes.
But there are still a number of Christian elements that don’t seem to understand how serious this is. That’s the only thing you can take away from an op-ed penned by the editor-in-chief of one of the largest conservative news outlets on the Internet. He wailed that Virginia’s new restrictions on mass gatherings amount to an attack on religious liberty.
Last Monday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued an executive order that banned all gatherings of 10 or more people through at least April 24. Anyone who violates this can be charged with a misdemeanor that carries up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. According to an accompanying FAQ, this applies to churches as well. Indeed, the FAQ urges Virginians to seek “alternative means of attending religious services” while this order is in place.
That didn’t sit well with Terrence Jeffrey, editor-in-chief of CNSNews, a subsidiary of Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center. In an op-ed, Jeffrey wailed that as a result of this order, “holding a church service attended by 11 people has been unilaterally declared a crime.”
Jeffrey noted that both Catholic dioceses in Virginia called off in-person Masses long before Northam issued this order, an act that he described as “a witness to the virtue of prudence.” But in a bizarre display of logical gymnastics, Jeffrey claimed that “prudence also counsels against” an executive order that would have the likely effect of forcing nearly every decent-sized church in the Commonwealth to cancel in-person services. He openly wondered what the Founding Fathers would have made of Northam’s move.
Jeffrey, as it turns out, was the campaign manager for Pat Buchanan’s 1996 presidential campaign. Combined with his current billet, it should come as no surprise that he is trying to gather evidence of a nefarious attack on our freedom where no such evidence exists. This order sets forth a “time, place and manner” restriction that applies to all gatherings in Virginia, secular or otherwise.
Indeed, Jeffrey shared correspondence with Northam’s press secretary, Alena Yarmosky, that knocks the bottom out of his argument. Yarmosky told Jeffrey that the order applies to “gatherings at private schools, private clubs, parties, as well as any other social get-together, and religious services.”
In this case, this executive order, like similar executive orders enacted around the country, is grounded in the interest of public health–that is, preventing the spread of a disease for which there is no vaccine or genetic immunity. And it applies to all gatherings, not just religious ones. Jeffrey graduated from Princeton, so he almost certainly knows–or at least, should know–that this is based on precedent written in blood.
And if Jeffrey is worried about “prudence,” surely he’s paid attention to the numerous stories of coronavirus outbreaks that can be directly traced to churches. For instance, earlier this month, the Church at Liberty Square in Cartersville, Georgia discovered that several of its members had caught coronavirus. Leaders of the Church of God megachurch on Atlanta’s northern fringe called off all in-person services and asked all who had attended earlier in the month to self-quarantine. Watch coverage from WXIA-TV in Atlanta here.
At one point, surrounding Bartow County, on Atlanta’s northern fringe, had the third-most coronavirus cases in all of Georgia even though it only has 100,600 people.
That alone would prove that it simply makes no sense to gather in-person at church at this point. But there’s more. At an Assembly of God in north-central Arkansas, at least 34 people–including the pastor–came down with coronavirus after attending a children’s event earlier in the month. In suburban Chicago, at least 43 people at a Oneness Pentecostal church got sick after attending a revival service on March 15, and at least 10 of them have tested positive for coronavirus.
What if a church still cajoled its members to gather for in-person services, and someone caught this disease? Well, if someone were to catch this disease and it could be traced to that church, it’s hard to believe that the strongest protections afforded under the First Amendment would protect it. And yet, unless we’re very wrong, that seems to be exactly what Jeffrey wants.
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