For most of 2020, Jim Bakker has faced as much scrutiny as he faced since his salad days in the 1980s, which ultimately resulted in him being packed off to jail in 1991. After he billed a colloidal silver recipe as a cure for coronavirus, sustained pressure from federal and state regulators forced him to take this snake oil off the market.
However, the fallout from Bakker’s latest swindle has continued unabated. His credit card processors have dropped him, forcing him to ask his partners and customers to write checks in order to donate to him or buy from his online store. Additionally, DirecTV has pressured several channels that carry Bakker into asking whether they should keep him on their lineups. Bakker relies on satellite for most of his audience, and he could be forced out of business if enough channels drop him.
Bakker struck back earlier this week, taking a very direct and very bizarre swipe at one of his pursuers, Missouri state attorney general Eric Schmitt. In response to a lawsuit Schmitt filed against Bakker for breaking Missouri consumer protection law by hawking his “Silver Sol” snake oil as a coronavirus cure, Bakker claimed–with a straight face–that such a lawsuit violates his right to religious liberty.
No, this isn’t snark. On Monday, Bakker’s legal team filed a motion in Stone County circuit court asking for Schmitt’s suit to be tossed out on First Amendment grounds. Through his lawyers, Bakker argues that Schmitt is attempting to use the state Manufacturing Practices Act to “prohibit and penalize the biblical practice and expression of Christianity and the religious solicitation of funds by a pastor to support a church’s ministry.”
Bakker claims that Schmitt is attempting to involve state government in religious matters in a way that violates both the federal Constitution’s First Amendment and the religious freedom provisions of the Missouri state constitution. Additionally, he contends that Schmitt is trying to enforce state consumer protection law in a way that “is not essential to further a compelling government interest.”
In an addendum, Bakker claims that any attempt to determine whether he’s telling the truth would require “the forbidden supervision of, and inquiry into, religion.” He also claims that Schmitt is trying to impose “content-based regulation of speech.” Bakker would have us believe that hawking Silver Sol isn’t just advertising, but “part and parcel” of exercising his faith.
You would think that only the likes of Liberty Counsel or the American Center for Law and Justice would have the guts to argue that telling a pastor not to sell snake oil violates the First Amendment. You would also think that only those two Christianist law firms would try to convince us that such measures do not serve a “compelling government interest.” But believe it or not, the person who signed this motion is Jay Nixon, the Democratic governor of Missouri from 2009 to 2017, and before then the state’s attorney general from 1993 to 2009.
In a press release, Nixon claims that Bakker is being “unfairly targeted” by those who want to drive him off the air, and that “this case is about religious freedom.” Looking at these ridiculous filings, one has to wonder if Nixon actually took the time to read them before signing them.
Those questions should grow even louder if one looks at a sworn statement from Maricela Woodall, the president of Bakker’s production company and the chief operating officer of Bakker’s current ministry, Morningside Church. Woodall, who is also Bakker’s adopted daughter, claims that every edition of Bakker’s show is the equivalent of a church service, with Bakker’s message the equivalent of sermons.
Woodall claims that the sale of Silver Sol is “an expression of our religious beliefs” and “an important religious practice of itself.” If you believe Woodall, any attempt to tell her adopted dad that he can’t peddle Silver Sol “restricts our religiously-motivated speech, as well as our actions or refusals to act that are substantially motivated by our religious beliefs.”
So let’s see if we’ve got this right. If it were up to Bakker, a state or federal government would have no right to tell a pastor that he can’t hawk snake oil because it represents a restriction on “religiously-motivated speech,” and such a demand would serve no “compelling government interest.” If that isn’t enough, it would amount to a violation of free speech because hawking such snake oil is merely an exercise of faith.
Simply put, this argument is complete hogwash. But that’s not what fellow televangelist Derek Gilbert would have you believe. Gilbert, who was on the February broadcast that put Bakker on the hot lights, defended his longtime friend on Tuesday’s edition of SkyWatch TV’s “Five in Ten.” Watch here.
Gilbert focused on the petition drive by progressive Christian group Faithful America that is aimed at getting Bakker off satellite TV and Roku. He billed it as just another attempt by liberals to “silence conservative Christians.” Um, Derek? You forget that this lawsuit was filed by Schmitt, who is at least as conservative on social issues as the bulk of Bakker’s constituency.
The most benign interpretation of Bakker’s patently bizarre argument is that Bakker had this ready to go in the event New York state attorney general Letitia James or the federal Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission came after him. It would have set him up to bill it as just another attack either by a far-out liberal state attorney general or unelected federal bureaucrats.
But Bakker trotting this claptrap against a conservative Republican state attorney general. That should make it clear beyond any doubt that Bakker is attempting to use a twisted interpretation of the First Amendment to gut consumer protection laws that are written in pigment.
Simply put, Bakker is effectively trying to use the First Amendment as a tool to give him and other pastors the right to swindle people. And a former governor has given his imprimatur to this misbegotten attempt. No judge in this country with any sense of decency would give a pastor carte blanche to wrap snake oil in the First Amendment. In a sane world, this motion should be wadded back up and thrown at Bakker. And the velocity with which it ought to happen should create quite the breeze.
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