Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

A right to get sick?

First Amendment | Challenges mount as some governors extend stay-at-home orders
by Steve West
Posted 4/28/20, 03:31 pm

A protester on Saturday circled the governor’s mansion in Jackson, Miss., in a white Chevy Tahoe with the slogan “I prefer dangerous liberty to peaceful slavery” painted on the back windshield. Earlier in the week, a blond woman sat on the steps of the Kansas Capitol in Topeka with a sign that read, “My business, my choice.” And the week before, a man in Olympia, Wash., wearing a Seattle Seahawks jersey held up a sign that declared, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

In their own ways, all three protesters shared a willingness to pay the possible price of illness in exchange for an end to the coronavirus-related shutdowns. At least a dozen states in recent weeks have seen demonstrations against public health restrictions as frustration grows over the economic downturn, rising unemployment, and restrictions on individual liberties, like the rights to worship, speak, assemble and protest, travel, and work.

An April 18 letter from Anthony Biller, an attorney for the group ReopenNC, urged North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, to end the shutdown and called “quarantine orders” unconstitutional. Cooper announced on Thursday that the state’s stay-at-home order, set to expire on Wednesday, would extend through May 8, followed by a cautious three-phase reopening to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19.

Many states have faced lawsuits over such measures, which have included school cancellations, and gathering bans. A bridal shop in Ohio challenged the state order that declared it a nonessential business and forced it to close. In Wisconsin, where thousands of protesters turned out in Madison, the state capital, on Friday, the Republican-controlled legislature is suing Democratic Gov. Tony Evers after he extended the state’s stay-at-home order, shuttering most businesses through May 26. Lawmakers want the state Supreme Court to stop the enforcement of the order, contending “an unelected, unconfirmed Cabinet secretary has laid claim to a suite of czar-like powers—unlimited in scope and indefinite in duration—over the people of Wisconsin.”

On Monday, The Washington Times reported that U.S. Attorney General William Barr sent a memo to federal prosecutors nationwide saying the U.S. Department of Justice may have to file lawsuits to address state and local ordinances that “cross the line.”

Some dissenters simply have said they won’t comply. Snohomish County, Wash., Sheriff Adam Fortney, echoing some other sheriffs in his state and across the country, said he won’t enforce Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s directive banning things like church gatherings because the mandate “intrudes on our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Mike Adams, a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, wrote that he would hold religious services in his home despite the gathering bans. He dared local officials to arrest him so that he could mount a legal challenge to state and local stay-at-home orders. Liberty Counsel, a religious liberty law firm, is promoting a “ReOpen Church Sunday” this week.

Michelle Kirtley, a fellow with the Center for Public Justice, a Christian policy organization, said an exclusive focus on individual rights can come at the expense of human flourishing.

“Scripture puts forth a vision of what, even this side of the fall, a really flourishing community looks like,” she said. “It always involves responsibility to one another.”

Kirtley, a cell biologist who worked as a health and science policy adviser for members of Congress for six years, noted one protester held a sign that read, “I have a right to get sick if I want to.” She said that type of attitude ignores humans’ interconnectedness.

“The fact that I should, as a Christian, be willing to sacrifice some of my good and my liberties for the sake of someone else should be a larger part of the conversation,” said Kirtley, adding that other entities like families, businesses, schools, and non-profit groups should play a role in mediating between individuals and government. For example, business leaders in Wisconsin last week offered their own plan to restart the economy three weeks before the governor did.

Kirtley’s take harks back to 19th-century Dutch theologian and Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper, whose concept of “sphere sovereignty” balanced the rights of the individual with the integrity of other entities in society. Each has its own place in creation as they fulfill different purposes, according to Kuyper, with the government having the overarching role of coordinating their work together for the health of society.

Those ideas may be non-starters with protesters carrying signs that say, “I have a right to play golf.” But they also may encourage a conversation about how to love one another well while protecting liberty.

Associated Press/Photo by Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald Associated Press/Photo by Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald A girl bows her head in prayer during a drive-in worship service on Sunday at Cornerstone Church in Athens, Ga.

Broken record

By now, it’s beginning to sound familiar: Governmental officials ban drive-in worship services as part of stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic, churches mount a challenge, and the officials revise the order. The latest version of the story just played out in New York’s Chemung County.

County Executive Christopher Moss announced on Facebook Live just before Easter that churches couldn’t hold drive-in services. First Liberty’s Keisha Russell sent a letter to Moss on Wednesday asking him to rescind the prohibition. A day later, he did.

Government officials are increasingly recognizing that drive-in worship, with appropriate social distancing protocols, does not put public health at risk. Lawsuits have pushed the issue forward in Kentucky, Mississippi, California, and Tennessee, where Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke explained in a tweet last week that pastors assured him they could conduct drive-in services safely by employing social distancing guidelines. Following a challenge, officials in Wake County, N.C., changed their policy on Friday to allow churches to offer pre-packaged communion elements and collect tithes and other monetary donations in boxes at drive-in services. —S.W.

Facebook/Oklahoma State University Facebook/Oklahoma State University The Oklahoma State University campus

Image management

A new report from a campus free speech organization details the extent to which universities screen out negative comments on their social media pages.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which works to defend the rights of students and faculty members at colleges and universities, sent public record requests to 224 public universities across the country. It found that one-third of the schools used Facebook and Twitter content filters not only to block profane or obscene comments but also to hide terms closely associated with particular criticisms. For example, the report found that students at schools like Oklahoma State University, where the names of political candidates are automatically blacklisted, would encounter difficulty if they mentioned candidates’ names in response to the schools’ posts about getting out the vote.

“State universities are preemptively censoring large swaths of protected speech and altering the public discourse with just a few clicks of the mouse—and Facebook gives them all the tools they need to do it,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. —S.W.

In-person worship sanctioned

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, settled a lawsuit brought by two Baptist churches in the state that wanted to hold in-person worship services during the coronavirus pandemic. After a U.S. District Court judge granted them a temporary order restraining enforcement of the governor’s ban of such gatherings last week, the parties reached a settlement allowing services to proceed for the next 14 days if the churches followed safety protocols. In the meantime, Kelly can amend the mass gathering ban’s application to churches. —S.W.

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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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  •  Peter Allen's picture
    Peter Allen
    Posted: Wed, 04/29/2020 11:37 am

    Everyone use a facemask indoors in public!!  It doesn't protect you.  It protects you from giving the virus to others if you are not showing symptoms.  I can not understand why Americans are so proud in this area.  As I have traveled in Asia and Latin America, I long ago observed that in those countries if you are sick, or potentially sick, you wear a mask as a loving action for others.  As Christians we need to let go of our pride and wear masks indoors in public until this abates.  Even when not required to do so.   Respecting our elders, the ones most at risk.  This will help, and potentially hasten the end of other draconian regulations. 

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Wed, 04/29/2020 02:57 pm

    But a month ago, the medical community all seemed in agreement that a cotton, homemade mask is essentially useless. So why is it suddently critical for saving lives? It doesn't make sense. I won't wear a mask because at this point it is promoting a culture of fear and paranoia which is disturbing to me. The chance of me causing the death of someone at the grocery store because I didn't wear my homemade mask is zero. 

    Posted: Wed, 04/29/2020 12:31 pm

    I see elderly people at the grocery store. No masks. I did NOT get the feeling they did it because they don't care about others. 

    Wearing a mask is not the easiest thing to do when you are elderly. It can disorient you. I am 69 and I have to wear glasses to keep it out of my eyes, both the bought paper ones and the bought cloth ones. 

    Before I began wearing a mask I NEVER thought that I might be infecting others. If I had thought that was the case, I would have worn a mask sooner. 

    I can't know what young people of all ages and colors think when they don't wear a mask. I live in a city where there are lots of stores and various people groups. I am amazed at who is and is not wearing masks. I saw a mom who had 2 children, all wearing masks. I've seen a father with baby on hip and no mask. 

    I am happy that the stores encourage the staff to wear masks. THAT is what should have happened sooner. I wish some staff would wear masks all the time like in the deli. 

  • Laura W
    Posted: Wed, 04/29/2020 03:05 pm

    I think they didn't want to recommend cloth masks sooner, because people might feel like they were protected and take greater risks. The current recommendations are to protect other people, especially during that dangerous period before symptoms become evident--you can't know if you're sick until it's too late to avoid infecting others. So a mask is at least better than nothing for that.

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Wed, 04/29/2020 03:20 pm

    To Laura- they weren't recommending people wear cotton masks a month ago because they said they are ineffective. They still are. My brother is a nurse and he said the idea of relying on a cotton mask to protect him from a virus is terrifying. It won't. It will keep bodily fluids off of his face. That's about it, so for the medical community, it is better than nothing.

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Wed, 04/29/2020 12:07 pm

    The problem I have with the extended stay at home orders is that we were told initially we must take such severe measures to protect our healthcare resources: avoid overwhelming hospitals, etc. That risk has now passed for most areas. So why are we still on lockdown? Now we are told to stay home until there are, seemingly, no new cases of Covid-19! That is a very different reason for putting everyone under house arrest. Viruses have always, and will always, until the new heaven and new earth, make people sick and die. Living in a constant state of fear and isolation is not loving or comapassionate or God-honoring.

  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Wed, 04/29/2020 12:26 pm

    In California, the Pacific ocean was banned.  A paddleboarder was arrested as were three people for putting their toes in the sand in San Diego.  Technically, the whole great outdoors is banned, except when it isn't for essentials.  Does the government legally have that kind of power?  I am packing up my motorcycle and plan to do some cross country camping, but since nature is now illegal I will be a fugitive in my own country.  Remember when liberty and civil rights used to mean something?

    Posted: Wed, 04/29/2020 12:36 pm

    I find it very disturbing that the People's Republic of California arrest innocent people because they are out, but let criminals out of jail because they might get the virus. So the criminals, who probably have the virus, are out and about infecting people. 

    I blame it on Dems, our country hasn't tanked far enough. Whatever it takes to get Trump, they will do it.


    Posted: Wed, 04/29/2020 12:40 pm

    Doesn't our constitution say we have a right to assemble? 

    At least Barr weighed in on the possible arrest and fines of people who stayed in their cars to attend church.

    At what point will someone say they have gone too far?

    Another month for Vegas? That is nuts!

    Posted: Wed, 04/29/2020 01:00 pm

    The WHO declared the SWINE FLU outbreak a PANDEMIC on June 11, 2009.

    Between April 12, 2009, and April 10, 2010, the CDC estimates swine flu caused 60.8 MILLION illnesses, 273,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths in the U.S.

    151,700 to 575,400 people died from swine flu in the first year of the pandemic

    It killed ANYONE and lasted ONE YEAR.

    Did OBAMA shut the economy down? No! 

    TRUMP was forced to put our country into an economic tailspin and now PELOSI is saying he is responsible for not responding sooner even though he was being impeached.

    I feel sorry for ANYONE who votes for people like Pelosi. If you can't see it, the devil is blinding you to the truth. 


  • BA
    Posted: Wed, 04/29/2020 01:53 pm

    Thank you for covering the protesters in a reasonable presentation, especially in light of Mindy Belz's comment last week that she is 'embarrassed for the well-turned middle-class Americans demanding their rights in a time of national emergency.' I found her comment to be morally superior at worst, unhelpful at best. This was much better coverage. 

  • Laura W
    Posted: Wed, 04/29/2020 03:08 pm

    I think both views are fair enough. I have a hard time feeling too much sympathy for whoever's primary concern right now is their ability to play golf.

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Wed, 04/29/2020 03:11 pm

    I agree. The response to this crisis has seemed extreme from the beginning, but now it is downright bizarre. I believe the people are right in their concern that our governments are overstepping their powers. I have yet to personally know anyone who has been diagnosed with Covid-19, let alone be hospitalized or die from it. I would not call that a "state of emergency". Yet our governor (in Oregon) has no plans so far to ease our restrictions. I'm fearful, in Oregon anyway, that our leaders decisions are motivated by "Trump-hate" more than anything.

  • OldMike
    Posted: Wed, 04/29/2020 07:57 pm

    I'm amused by all this, but I guess, retired with a secure income (Praise God!), I just don't feel the same urgency as those losing their businesses, people unable to go to work, parents dealing with trying to maintain their kids' educations. 

    My wife and I have cloth masks made by a family member, and we certainly don't feel it a burden to wear them when we get groceries etc  It does amaze me how few are wearing masks.  I realize they aren't ideal protection from the covid, but we wear them partly as an example to others.  We've also noted that one can have covid and spread it to others before feeling any symptoms.  Although we doubt we have been exposed, that is another reason to wear masks--I would be very sad to find out I had the virus and spread it to others and could have possibly prevented that by use of a mask.  

    As for getting back to normal activities, people just need to chill and be patient.  I'm attending church on Zoom, most churches are capable of doing something like that.  

    Folks, the Lord IS in control!  A calm and cooperative spirit about these situations is a good testimony to those around us, that we actually do believe what we preach: that the Lord takes care of us. 

    I guess it's only fair that I add that maybe it's easier for me to be relaxed about this than some of you. Because I live in Arkansas, with very low infection rate and pretty sensible authorities.  I might have a completely different outlook if I lived, like some of you, in an area with a lot of infection. Or an area with nutso government officials, like Cali or NYC.  God bless you, that's a lot to suffer even without a highly infectious virus!  

  • Narissara
    Posted: Thu, 04/30/2020 11:37 am

    Wearing a mask and practicing social distancing are small things to ask to get us through this pandemic.  But people all over the country are growing, rightly, concerned about government overreach, especially at the state level, as this story and the comments to it show.  I would like to see more coverage from World about the activities of the Governors Association, starting with how it actually works.  To what extent are decisions that affect citizens in states with the smallest populations like Wyoming, Vermont and Alaska being dictated by governors of larger states like California, New York and Texas?  For example, are votes taken and all members subject to the outcome?  It's one thing for governors to confer with one another concerning things that will affect all fifty states; it's another for them to take their marching orders from an another unofficial, unelected layer of government instead of the people who put them in office in the first place (see the 9th and 10th Amendments), and I'd like to know where the first ends and the latter begins.    

  • LaHay
    Posted: Sat, 05/02/2020 09:51 am

         Every single protestor example has 1 key factor in common - that of a 1st person pronoun. "I or my or me" implies that just that one person is involved. However, that's not how the Covid-19 virus works. It doesn't just affect you. Why do you think hospital workers treating Covid patients are suited up like a man on the moon? Protestors need to understand that it is about "us, we, and our." Moreover, even though I have no idea of those protestors' faith, we as Christians need to take to heart biblical words about our neighbor from Galations 5:14, "For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' This references the Old Testament scripture of Leviticus 19:18. Our neighbor is mankind, not just a next door person or someone we know. Would you want to be struggling to breathe hearing the whoosh of the ventilator forcing air into your lungs? Neither would my neighbor and so we should sacrifice and bear this burden for him or her.

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Mon, 05/04/2020 04:55 pm

    If you really believe what you are saying, then you  would need to self-isolate all the time, wear masks all year long, avoid all human contact -forever. There is always a chance that you are spreading a disease to someone without knowing it. This protracted response is based on fear and perhaps politics. The actual data we are seeing shows Covid-19 to be about at deadly as the yearly flu.

  • momof 13
    Posted: Mon, 05/11/2020 09:58 am

    "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety" Benjamin Franklin

    "I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it." Thomas Jefferson