We have seen government abandon the First Amendment protections of religious liberty to tell people of faith they must toss out their long-held beliefs on the sanctity of marriage, for example, and condone same-sex marriages. Governments have insisted that people of faith must pay taxes to support secular education and pay again for a religious-based education for their children. People of faith are told they may not meet in church, must not sing, must place foster children with same-sex couples, and so on. Many of these cases are winding their way through the courts, and will eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. But more such cases are springing up, and the outcomes can go either way, as we saw with South Bay United Pentecostal Church v Newsom.
With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, government set the requirements for health coverage, and following government guidelines for health and wellbeing was not just a matter of personal choice, it became a lever and a club.
The ACA enabled many more Americans to afford health care, and while there’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to eat heathier and get health insurance, that’s not the point. Once the “health is a government mandate” train got rolling, it picked up boxcars of righteous indignation, and with the COVID-19 pandemic it began to roll over religion.
If you don’t wear a mask you are trying to kill people. If you have religious services you could infect the whole state. If you sing, you are endangering everyone. Right now in San Francisco, worship services are barred by the government from meeting in person and only 12 congregants may meet outside. While those measures may be imposed with good intentions, may I once again quote the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
In the interests of public safety, state and local governments are “prohibiting the free exercise of religion.” But things could get worse.
The next big test of religious freedom will be – by some estimates – mandated vaccinations for COVID-19. Currently government may bar unvaccinated children from public school, and some regions do not allow religious exemptions.
After the 2014 Burwell v Hobby Lobby case the U. S. Supreme Court Ruled that Health and Human Services could not force Hobby Lobby stores to act contrary to their Christian principles and make the company pay for employee insurance coverage of contraception. Hobby Lobby objected to four of the 20 covered methods of contraception – two morning after pills which abort a conceived fetus and two forms of IUDs. The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying that a bunch of religious exemptions might cause havoc if they were to “extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations (Christian Scientists, among others).” There was “little doubt that such claims will proliferate,” she said, and courts would then have to get into the dangerous business of deciding the merits of various religious beliefs.
Well, governments have evidently decided that public health is more important than the First Amendment, more important than the right to worship as one chooses, and have already jumped into “deciding the merits of various religious beliefs.”
How far could it go? Will you be required to show a COVID vaccination certificate to dine at a restaurant, attend religious services, drive across state lines or go to school? Think that’s far-fetched? Next year, Real ID will be required to board an airplane in the United States.
And then there’s the matter of the vaccinations themselves. The apparent front-runner in COVID vaccine development – Pfizer – was fined $106 million in 2016 for a 2,600 percent price hike on an epilepsy drug and in 2009 was fined $2.3 billion for illegal off label marketing. In the rush to develop the first vaccine and derive the most profits, should we trust that their vaccine is safe and effective?
As Benjamin Franklin said: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” So find out for yourself how to protect yourself, your family and others from the virus, and do what you think best. But beware of government revoking liberty to buy some measure of safety; for liberty once lost will be hard to recover.