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.