While not surprising, it’s fascinating to watch sheriffs line up to say they won’t enforce Gov. Roy Cooper’s edicts when it comes to in-building church services. No sane sheriff wants to be seen breaking up worship services, particularly since the COVID-19 outbreak in North Carolina is relatively contained. Granted, many houses of worship and Christian denominations are going to follow the governor’s order out of an abundance of caution and obedience to the civil authority. All the more so given that a lot of the church population skews older than the general population. Still, there are numerous churches pushing back and a lawsuit has been filed against Cooper. Churches are telling the governor to back off when it comes to the inherent right to worship freely. Currently, Gov. Cooper has restricted indoor gatherings at houses of worship to 10.
Senate Bill 781 is proposed legislation that would limit the governor’s power to restrict the rights of the press, religion, and protestors during a national emergency. I’m always a little skeptical of legislation that is meant to beef up the Bill of Rights. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land and when that is not enforced it points to deeper problems in our political and civil society. Usually, those problems can’t be solved by more legislation. After all, there is no clause or asterisk in the Bill of Rights that says, “oh, by the way, these rights are suspended or invalidated during a national emergency.” However, as society becomes increasingly politicized, sometimes further protections and reiterations are needed.
A big part of this tension was created by the governor insisting on a highly centralized and tightly managed reopening plan from Raleigh. I’ve already addressed why a plan for more local control for reopening North Carolina is superior.
In a free society, churches should not face heavy-handed restrictions on how best to protect the health and safety of their congregations. As I said, I’d suspect the vast majority will lean towards an abundance of caution before reopening their indoor sanctuaries. Most pastors and religious leaders are not only highly educated but protective of their flock. The sensationalized stories of churches and pastors defying government orders related to the Coronavirus are the exception and not the rule. Also, most religious leaders and houses of worship have the ability to tap medical professionals in their own congregations and community for guidance. Given the differences in congregations across the state, a one-size-fits-all approach is rarely the best course of action.
Of course, the larger issue at play here is that while governors take the lead on emergencies during a pandemic, they don’t get to be dictators. There are Constitutional restraints. Obviously, governors share power and authority with state legislators. It feels like it’s going to take some time to sort out these Constitutional issues going on in the various states and some courts are already intervening to limit state executive power.