The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the religious liberty of all Americans and ensures that the rights of free speech, a free press, peaceable assembly and petition to the government cannot be abridged.
Yet, liberty is not license. That point seems lost on the “Return America” protesters and in the recent ruling by the U.S. District Court for Eastern North Carolina. Churches in the state are now permitted to open their doors despite the governor’s warning that they risk spreading the coronavirus.
Those first freedoms are not and never have been absolute or unlimited.
For example, the right of parents to practice a faith that refuses medical care in favor of divine healing does not unconditionally extend to their minor children. Polygamous marriages are not legal nor are interracial unions illegal, religious traditions notwithstanding.
These cases serve as reminders that religious liberty in American society always has been subject to regulation.
By limiting the size of indoor gatherings, including religious services, and tying the loosening of those restrictions to a decreasing number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Roy Cooper is properly exercising the oversight he was elected to perform
The First Amendment ensures religious groups with the freedom of peaceable assembly, but because church gatherings across the country have been identified as significant sources for community transmission of the coronavirus it is not unreasonable for the governor to act in the interest of public safety. Indeed, it is wise to exercise caution and to ensure the reopening of religious services according to safety protocols.
The “Return America” protesters betray a fundamental misunderstanding of religious liberty in still another way. They presume that their right to worship the way they choose is greater than their responsibility to love their neighbors.
Following a reasonable plan for public safety is not a violation of religious liberty. It is a way of loving our neighbors.
At the recent “Return America” protests in Raleigh, participants did not observe social distancing guidelines nor did they wear protective masks.
It is understandable to question whether these same people will abide by recommendations for safe indoor gatherings.
Religious liberty as put forth in the First Amendment is a shield for protecting all, not a sword for injuring others.
As Thomas Jefferson pointedly opined: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
The free exercise of religion called for by “Return America” may not pick the pockets or break the legs of North Carolinians.
But if our faith communities do not carefully follow public health and safety guidelines as they move toward resuming public gatherings, it may cause harm or even take the lives of our members and our neighbors, who we are commanded to love.
Our First Amendment rights have been not been “squandered” by limiting the size of our gatherings or the timing for the reopening of our services, as Return America claims. Far from it. By requiring our attention to public health the First Amendment freedoms of all, not just some, have been secured.
Curtis W. Freeman is research professor of theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke University Divinity School. He is the author of “Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity.”
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