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Category Archives: First Amendment

How The Constitution Gets Tested In Times Of Crisis, Like A Pandemic – Houston Public Media

Posted: April 11, 2020 at 7:21 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued numerous rulings over the years regarding how the government can curtail certain rights during emergencies.

As the coronavirus pandemic began to unfold, local and state governments restricted certain aspects of life by shutting down non-essential businesses, limiting restaurants to delivery or carry-out only, and prohibiting large public gatherings.

All of this, of course, is being done in the interest of public safety, but some argue such measures violate some basic rights as expressed in the Constitution.

For example, we are granted the right to peacefully assemble under the First Amendment, but the government says we cant really do that right now. So, legally, whats going on here? How does a crisis of this magnitude change how we look at Constitutional rights?

A Compelling Governmental Purpose

Charles Rocky Rhodes, a professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, told Houston Matters host Craig Cohen that the First Amendment can sometimes be overcome in situations where there is whats known in the judicial circles as a compelling governmental purpose.

And this is the highest order the apex of things the government does, things like winning a war, or preventing an imminent attack, protecting children, Rhodes said. And, of course, another one of these is protecting the public health from a pandemic.

Pandemics Arent New Just New To Us

While this global situation is new to most Americans, pandemics used to be much more commonplace. The last one was the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918, which resulted in our Constitution being tested by local and state regulations. And throughout our nations history the court has issued multiple rulings that have established legal precedent when it comes to distancing and quarantine methods.

One such case was Jacobson v. Massachusetts in 1905. A man named Henning Jacobson wanted to refuse a smallpox vaccine and maintained he had the legal right to do so.

However, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state, stating that a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.

Practicing Religion In A Pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, some churches are using technology to adapt to the stay-at-home order. But others maintain that churches are an essential service and will not close their doors. Gov. Greg Abbott has exempted them from the stay-at-home order, but Harris County and others have banned such gatherings.

A case from 1944 established some legal precedent for such an issue. Prince v. Massachusetts maintained that the right to practice religion freely does not include the liberty to expose the community to communicable disease.

As long as the government is treating all situations that present that risk the same, then that is not going to be a constitutional violation, Rhodes said.

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Letter to the Editor – Is our First Amendment infringed by Governor’s mandate – Bay Net

Posted: at 7:21 pm

Dear Editor:

It has come to my attention that St. Marys County churches are being subjected to a program of Sunday morning soft surveillance. Individuals dressed in civilian clothes, arriving in civilian vehicles have been observed surveilling local church services. Is the purpose of this extralegal activity the enforcement the Governors 10-person limit?

The 10-person occupancy rule appears to be an unfortunate governmental over-reach. While there are Coronavirus hotspots in Maryland, such as Baltimore, the on-the-ground realities in many Maryland counties do not seem to warrant such drastic measures. Certainly, St. Marys is one such county.

Under the Governors executive orders, the big box stores remain open, allowing unlimited numbers of patrons, many crammed together much closer than the mandated six feet, with few of them wiping off cart handles, and virtually no one wearing a facemask. Meanwhile, the Governors decrees prohibit restaurants from providing on-site dining. This is discriminatory and grossly unfair to those businesses and their employees who now are deprived of the opportunity to make a living. A significant number of these citizens will soon be unable to pay rent, make mortgage payments, cover the utilities and buy food for their families. Unprecedented levels of business closures are wreaking havoc with the markets and imperiling the health of the banking system.

The 10-person limit has virtually closed down on-site religious services, resulting in reduced congregant contributions. These contributions support essential services to low-income persons, including homeless shelters, food banks, and soup kitchens. Many view this limit as an unconstitutional infringement of the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

Sadly, the executive orders force the curtailment of the operation of doctors offices, resulting in postponement of previously scheduled appointments and necessary medical treatments.

The Governors April 1, 2020 communications outline his attempt to micromanage medical and religious institutions and provide him a ready rationale for the utilization of the State Police for enforcement.

To ensure both reasonable public health protections and constitutional liberties, Governor Hogan should immediately revise his executive orders to allow a local government option for a 50-person occupancy limit. I fear that a continuation of this draconian, one-size-fits-all approach will be perceived by the injured citizens of St. Marys County as an affront to their well-being and solid evidence and reasoning to hold the Governor personally accountable for their various losses.

-Cynthia L. Jones

Valley Lee

St. Marys County Commissioner 2010-2013

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Why the government can shut down church gatherings during pandemic | TheHill – The Hill

Posted: at 7:21 pm

Jesus bore it so that you would not have to. If that recent declaration by the Awaken Church of Jonesboro in Arkansas is true, Jesus might also be viewed as the first coronavirus offender, because the Last Supper hosted three disciples too many under the social gathering limits in most states during this crisis. At the time, of course, Roman Governor Pontius Pilate was trying to contain Christianity itself, which now some church leaders accuse American governors of doing. Some churches plan to defy state public health directives by carrying out large Easter services.

The issue is playing out in several states. In Kansas, Democratic Governor Laura Kelly has barred religious gatherings with more than 10 people. That action prompted the Republican controlled state legislature to then vote to rescind the order as an attack on free exercise of religion. Kelly asked her staff to explore all her legal options. Under the Constitution, she is on strong grounds to issue such an order. While untested, the free exercise clause is not a license for religious spreaders in a pandemic.

This may be the most compelling use of the belief that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. I have been critical of that often repeated reference by those who want to ignore fundamental rights. It was originally attributed to Abraham Lincoln after he had violated the Constitution by unilaterally suspending habeas corpus. It is more often attributed to Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, without noting that he used the line in one of his most reprehensible opinions, a dissent to the Supreme Court extending protections to a priest arrested for his controversial speech.

These churches would convert the free exercise clause into a suicide pact of sorts. The interpretation not only puts the faithful at risk of infection but also their communities. No constitutional rights are truly absolute. Rights such as free exercise of religion and free speech can be overcome with a sufficiently compelling purpose of state and the least restrictive means of achieving that purpose. There is nothing more compelling than battling a pandemic, and limiting gathering size is the only effective deterrent to the coronavirus spreading until a vaccine can be made available.

However, that has not stopped defiance. In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis overruled local orders limiting or barring church gatherings. In Arkansas, Pastor Chad Gonzales of Awaken Church defied demands to end services. His declaration of Jesus as a coronavirus victim was based on the belief that Jesus took away every sin and disease on the cross, a particularly powerful message for Easter. Similarly, Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church in Louisiana was arrested for holding large services. Spell declared his intention to hold large Easter services and insisted that he will never yield to this dictator law. Even more chilling was his statement that true Christians do not mind dying.

If this were a matter of just congregants dying, a constitutional argument could be made for the right to make a self destructive decision based on faith. Adults can forgo simple medicines or transfusions that would save their lives. Likewise, the snake handlers in West Virginia can still engage in that dangerous practice based on a passage in the Bible that the faithful shall take up serpents and the story of Paul surviving a venomous viper. Yet even in practices that kill only the faithful, many states have outlawed snake handling as dangerous to both humans and snakes.

One of the key factors in any constitutional review is whether free exercise of religion is truly being denied, as suggested by these pastors. There is a curtailing of free exercise of religion, including the important element of congregating together in faith, but these orders only temporarily halt one form of faithful expression and do not stop worshiping. Most faiths have moved online during the lockdown. Just as states can force churches to satisfy building or fire codes, they can bar congregating in churches and temples as public health risks in a pandemic like this one.

The objection from these pastors is not frivolous as there is a substantial curtailment in an expression of faith. But this is not an effort to establish a favored state church. It is content neutral on particular faiths impacted by the limitation on crowd size. Their views are not frivolous, but they are still reckless. Free exercise of religion does not allow dangerous acts, even if they are part of a demonstration of faith. A pastor should not be able to disregard public health limits on congregation size to fight a pandemic threat any more than he can disregard a fire safety threat.

The real issue here may be more about state law. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt declared that Kansas statute and the Kansas Constitution bill of rights each forbid the governor from criminalizing participation in worship gatherings by executive order. Kansas law goes beyond the First Amendment in its protections. However, even the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act allows for a denial of forms of free exercise when based on a compelling state interest and least intrusive means. Schmidt notes that the orders do not stop grocery shopping and other gatherings. But religious services can be supplied online, while grocery shopping for most people continues to take actual visits to the stores.

This Easter will feel different for many of us. Yet the heart of the holiday, both religious and social, has never been stronger or more defining. This pandemic has drawn millions of Americans, believers and nonbelievers, to rediscover faith, family, and other core values. Our separation during this period is part of our sense of obligation to our neighbors as well as to our health care workers in a time of crisis. I am not so sure about Jesus being a coronavirus sufferer, as Awaken Church says, but I know he is a symbol of collective responsibility and of treating others the way you would wish to be treated. This includes protecting others from the spread of a deadly disease, just as you would wish to be protected by them.

The Constitution does not leave the states as mere bystanders forced to watch as pastors such as Tony Spell bus in hundreds of people for church services. Such services are worse than a suicide pact. They are a pact to serve potential spreaders. Spell may declare that true Christians do not mind dying, but their neighbors might mind a great deal.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.

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First Five: Religious communities can fight pandemic but not by gathering – McDowell News

Posted: at 7:21 pm

Our COVID-19 crisis has been escalating quickly and with it, the potential collision with the First Amendment over issues involving religious liberty and the right of assembly.

Last month, we thought that stopping the spread of the virus was a matter of washing our hands thoroughly and avoiding touching our faces.

Now, were unable to assemble in groups and many of us are confined to our homes.

Three weeks ago, President Trump dreamed of packed churches on Easter Sunday. At the time, many medical experts found that overly optimistic (or as one put it, not rooted in reality.) Now, with the U.S. approaching 430,000 cases and the death toll nearing 15,000, it seems like an impossibility. Or at least, it should.

But as recently as this past Saturday, President Trump was floating the possibility of making a special allowance for churches to have Easter services. Hes not the only politician to contemplate loosening the reins for the holidays. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster recently issued a stay-at-home order but still recommended that Easter services continue. Kansas, Michigan and New Mexico currently exempt worship services from their orders prohibiting gatherings in large groups.

The fact that some government officials think this is worth the risk reflects the push back weve seen from some religious leaders ever since state and local governments started prohibiting large gatherings and shutting down non-essential businesses, including churches, synagogues and other houses of worship.

For example, Louisiana pastor Tony Spell has continued to lead in-person services, calling the closure of his Life Tabernacle Church religious persecution and questioning why retailers were deemed essential but churches not.

We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says, Spell said in an interview.

But while Spell is framing the states order as a violation of his First Amendment rights, thats not actually the case. Along with being rooted in the publics best interest, its also important to note that the orders restricting the size of gatherings and shutting down non-essential businesses are, at this time, the least restrictive options available to protect public health.

In short, this means theyre almost certainly constitutional but granting an exemption to one of these orders for houses of worship may not be.

The First Amendments Establishment Clause requires that the government treat secular and religious organizations equally, without favoring one over the other.

As Rachel Laser, president and chief executive officer of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, put it, [W]hen health experts and public officials determine that large gatherings must be cancelled for the public good, we must follow their lead and apply these guidelines to secular and religious gatherings equally. The Constitution not only permits it, but demands it. Such restrictions do not violate religious freedom; they ensure religious freedom is not misused in ways that risk peoples lives.

This week I had the pleasure of moderating a (virtual) Freedom Forum panel on religious freedom in the time of COVID-19 and discussing these issues and more with legal experts Richard Foltin and Maggie Garrett, atheist thought leader Mandisa Thomas and seminary-trained religious liberty advocate Charles Watson Jr.

One question from the audience that stood out to me was from an attendee who wondered if there was more to the conversation than just religious freedom versus public health. Did these two values have to be on opposing sides? Werent there things that religious communities could proactively do in service of public health starting with asking their members to stay at home, of course, but going beyond that to encourage them to volunteer their time and monetary resources, donate blood and generally provide assistance to the most vulnerable members of our population? You can find the full webinar on the Freedom Forums YouTube channel.

It was a reminder to me of the crucial charitable function that religious organizations have often served in crisis situations. As Baylor University professors Byron Johnson and Thomas Kidd point out, When it comes to confronting contemporary social turmoil, communities of faith have always played an important role in working toward solutions.

Many religious organizations are doing this right now. Leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today published a joint statement reminding people that God cannot be consigned to a place.

They added: It is one thing to risk your own life in order to worship together in person; it is quite another to risk the lives of countless others, when so many churches are finding creative and compelling ways to carry on in worship and community from a distance.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints suspended all services worldwide on March 12 (a lifetime ago in the COVID-19 timeline). Houses of worship have been providing crucial material and social support to those who suddenly find themselves in need of it.

As the pandemic continues, my hope is that these narratives become more common and stories of church leaders risking the lives of their congregants seem like a distant memory.

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Federal officials fired by Trump face tough road in court | TheHill – The Hill

Posted: at 7:21 pm

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCalifornia governor praises Trump's efforts to help state amid coronavirus crisis Trump threatens to withhold visas for countries that don't quickly repatriate citizens Trump admin looks to cut farmworker pay to help industry during pandemic: report MOREs recent shake-up of agency watchdogs has his critics fuming, but legal experts say that federal officials fired for even apparently political reasons have little legal recourse.

Trumps firing of intelligence community watchdog Michael Atkinson last Friday was widely seen as payback for his handling of the Ukraine whistleblower complaint that sparked the president's impeachment by the House.

Legal experts, though, say that those ousted by Trumps recent moves against inspectors general at multiple federal agencies and by his broader post-impeachment purge would be unlikely to win if they sued the U.S. government.

It is a sad political commentary that Atkinson was let go for doing his job, said employment attorney Thomas Spiggle. The only punishment Trump may face is some karma at the ballot box.

A president is entitled to populate his ranks with trusted employees, though there are some constraints on his latitude.

Trump has fired or reassigned numerous other federal workers. In what has been dubbed the Friday Night Massacre, Trump on Feb. 7 dismissed impeachment witness Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanTrump takes heat for firing intel watchdog during pandemic America's diplomats deserve our respect White House withdraws nomination for Pentagon budget chief who questioned Ukraine aid hold MORE and his twin brother from the National Security Council and hours later fired Ambassador to the European Union Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandTrump takes heat for firing intel watchdog during pandemic White House withdraws nomination for Pentagon budget chief who questioned Ukraine aid hold Juan Williams: Will the GOP ever curb Trump? MORE, another impeachment witness.

More recently, Trump fired, removed or publicly berated inspectors general across multiple federal agencies in the span of less than a week, including the oversight official who was tasked last week with overseeing the massive $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package.

A group of legal heavyweights, Lawyers Defending American Democracy (LDAD), said Trumps treatment of the inspectors general undermined the rule of law.

Article II of the Constitution, in clear and unmistakable terms, commands the president to 'take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.' By necessary implication, this includes the duty to protect the officials who execute the laws, said James McHugh, a former justice on the Massachusetts Appeals Court and one of LDADs steering committee members.

When the president fired Inspector General Atkinson for doing what the law required Atkinson to do, the president directly violated that duty, McHugh added.

But other experts say the high-profile Trump firings that have grabbed national headlines would be unlikely to produce victories in a court of law.

By and large, most of the civil servants the president has sought to purge from the ranks lack much in the way of due process rights, said Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer. The idea that government employees cant be fired is largely a myth, especially for those who work in the national security and defense agencies.

A fired workers chances of winning a wrongful termination case under federal civil service laws would depend on a number of factors: whether they were a political appointee or rose through the civil service ranks, the degree of protections afforded by their particular department or agency, and whether any federal law gave additional cover to their particular job.

The result is a tiered system of protections for the federal workforce. The various layers are spelled out in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, the main federal law that governs a federal workers due process rights upon firing.

Unlessan agency can show a good reason to remove them, federal workers tend to enjoy a type of tenure, said employment attorney Richard Renner.

Many employees can also challenge their dismissals through an appeals avenue called the Merit Systems Protection Board. But in Atkinsons case, he had very little protection because the inspector general serves at the pleasure of the president and can be removed for any reason.

Unfortunately, he has no employment law recourse, Spiggle added.

Employees who work in agencies tasked with overseeing the nations security and defense are also more vulnerable than most of the federal workforce.

The bulk of those employees lack protections under existing federal civil service laws and effectively are at-will employees, Moss said.

While the president has a degree of freedom to reshuffle personnel, he cannot fire employees for reasons that violate the Constitution or statutory protections against discrimination for thingssuch as race or disability.

Twowrongful termination cases brought bya pair of fired FBI officials that are currently pending in federal court in Washington, D.C., though are seeking to test the limits of Trumps controversial personnel moves.

The lawsuits were filed by former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeTrump shakes up Justice Department, intelligence community Trump allies assembled lists of officials considered disloyal to president: report Bill Barr is trying his best to be Trump's Roy Cohn MORE and former FBI agent Peter Strzok after being sacked by Trump following their involvement in the probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Both Strzok and McCabe allege, among other things, they were fired as retribution for expressing political views that didnt line up with Trumps, in violation of the First Amendment.

Aitan Goelman, an attorney at Zuckerman Spaeder who represents Strzok, said he would agree that it is "a myth that federal employees cannot be fired."

But that doesnt mean that they can be fired for improper reasons, he added.

Career civil servants, like Pete, cant be fired because they expressed political opinions that the president disagrees with, Goelman continued. The entire executive branch is not the presidents personal political army. This isnt Russia.

But experts say prior judicial rulings suggest a steep climb ahead in court for McCabe and Strzok.

There might be statutory loopholes that would apply in particular factual situations like that of McCabe or Strzok, Moss said.

But he predicted the odds are that the weight of existing precedent will doom their cases in the end.

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Constitution, church and social crises – Kemmerer Gazette

Posted: at 7:21 pm

Teton Countys Public Health Order No. 20-4 is among the most drastic in the country. It prohibits anyone from gathering who is not already living in the same household. It was issued only days after New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio threatened to shutter permanently synagogues and churches that attempted to hold services.

In this context, it can hardly be argued that Teton County accidentally overlooked the constitutional problems that their order presented. Rather, they simply became the latest example of government officials willing to use force to deny the free exercise of religion and the right to assembly.

Of course, COVID-19 presents an unprecedented social crisis. Desperate times demand desperate measures. Many, especially the unchurched, are ready to blame and shame synagogues and churches for jeopardizing at-risk populations by stubbornly refusing to disband. But before we jump on the shame wagon, lets use the opportunity for some thoughtful conversation.

In the scramble to distance socially, a trinity of foundational principles is in play. First-Amendment freedoms are up-front and center. These seem in conflict with a second principle, to love your neighbor by social distancing. Last to be considered if at all is the corporate and corporal nature of human life.

We should really reverse this order. Before we can rightly weigh personal responsibility and first freedoms, we first need to observe that human beings are both corporal and corporate.

A man is more than a mind. Our bodies are a part of who we are. We are corporal. Furthermore, human beings naturally congregate. We are corporate. Go to any party and watch how people are not evenly distributed. There are knots and clusters of people with empty space between. As social beings we live life in groups families, crews, classrooms and cities.

This is easily observed as a universal fact. But we rarely think of it as a necessary fact. Thats the first rub in our COVID-19 crisis. The concern of epidemiologists is to separate people in order to slow the spread. Bean counters can position people on paper exactly six feet apart. But this is not true to real life. The first thing we must do to meet the present crisis is to recognize that we are not merely working against peoples preferences. We are attempting to deny a fundamental force of human nature.

The force of law and social shaming can work in the short run. But, like stretching a rubber band, the farther it is stretched, the greater is the tension. Soon it takes enormous force just to hold people apart.

The second thing to recognize is that human togetherness is not an indifferent matter; it is fundamentally necessary for life. This principle is turned on its head when people are portrayed as walking petri dishes that only transmit diseases and have no positive value.

We readily see that, from the first moment of your life, you depended upon your mothers womb. Twins in the womb are often found in embrace. Newborns are placed upon the mothers breast. Models that fail to take this into account lose their persuasive value.

NICU nurses know that babies thrive by human touch and waste away without it. They must find the right balance between a sterile, pathogen-free environment and risking the life-giving benefits of human touch.

Balance is the key word. When we talk of personal responsibility to love the neighbor, we can neither command total isolation nor irresponsible contact. In todays climate of scientism, that is hostile both toward God and toward the human soul, the necessity of an ordered, bodily community is under attack.

Such imbalanced scientism treats human beings as mere atoms that can be arranged and rearranged willy-nilly. Natural relationships are broken, and unnatural ones are imposed. The CDCs recommendation that newborn children be quarantined from their own mothers are one such extreme example.

At the other end of life, we see an entire class of vulnerable people forced into solitary confinement. Since the earliest days of the COVID-19 crisis, nursing homes have forbidden families from visiting their loved ones. Not only does this mean that parents are dying alone and isolated from children and grandchildren, it also means that they cannot even eat together or visit with friends they have in the care facility.

At what point is the cure worse than the disease? We simply must recognize that there is a sliding scale between responsible bodily contact and irresponsible bodily contact. Both extremes should be avoided.

It is a risk to let any human being have contact with another person. When we allow nursing home staff to take that risk, but deny it to others, we are making value judgments about the relative worth of natural family bonds. And these judgments are by no means foolproof.

We have seen COVID-19 transmitted from patient to nurse and nurse to patient in spite of the most draconian measures. The fact remains that judgments must be made. Risks must be taken. The question is about authority. Who has the perfect judgment? Who has the absolute authority to make these myriad decisions?

That, finally, brings us to the First Amendment. The ideal the way our social life is supposed to work is that perfect knowledge of nature and perfect knowledge of God lead each individual to draw the boundary perfectly between responsible and irresponsible use of our bodies. But such utopian idealism is not the world we inhabit.

Through decades of the sexual revolution, authorities throughout the land have dissipated their credibility by assuring society that obviously unhealthy things are perfectly healthy. Not only does no person or institution have a corner on perfect judgment, our entire populace is divided and distrustful of one another.

So, in this divided and distrustful world, we have constitutions and laws that limit any single authority from having absolute power to impose its judgment. This is especially important when it comes to judging which establishments remain open and under what conditions.

Christians have good cause to question a secular government that designates liquor stores as essential businesses while closing churches as non-essential. This moral judgment is, in itself, a religious statement. And if the waiting room at the chiropractor has more people per square foot than a church sanctuary, who is being irresponsible?

First-Amendment freedoms to assemble and worship should not be unilaterally revoked if there is a responsible way to exercise them. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a good starting place for federal, state and local governments to work with the church in finding a responsible sweet spot between draconian restrictions and responsible contact.

It seeks a balance between compelling government interest, and least restrictive means. Certainly, during the COVID-19 crisis, there is a compelling government interest to prevent irresponsible social contact. But is it the least restrictive means when Christians are forbidden to meet even in groups of 10, as the Teton County order dictates?

Responsible government officials will issue guidelines and encourage responsible boundaries while leaving the details to each local establishment. They are already doing this with everything from grocery stores to gas stations. Activities explicitly protected by our constitution should be no exception.

The governors of Michigan, Colorado, Texas and other states have already recognized this constitutional necessity. Teton County should follow them, rather than New Yorks mayor.

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [emailprotected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.

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Danbury Pastor Goes Online To Battle Coronavirus, And Wins – Danbury, CT Patch

Posted: at 7:21 pm

DANBURY, CT In the week before the holiest day on the Christian calendar, some pastors have been defiantly flouting the social distancing recommendations of public health officials by continuing to hold services. In some states, where recent laws passed in the wake of the new coronavirus limit the size of assemblies, this has resulted in arrests.

Joe Vassak, pastor of Northeast Baptist Church in Danbury, is having none of that. Vassak says that he started "paying attention" to the threat of the new coronavirus around the end of February, and mandated his congregation stop shaking hands during services then.

"I don't have the answers for all of society or even for the City of Danbury," Vassak said. "But my responsibility is to the group of people who call me 'pastor.' I encouraged them to stay home."

The following week, as the virus quickly spread, the pastor mandated a total "no contact" rule, and stopped activities like Sunday School classes where large groups met inside. About three weeks ago, the church stopped meeting for public Sunday services completely.

"I took everything we did in all three weekly services and put it on video and loaded it up on YouTube, and requested that everybody (in the congregation) watch it at the same time," the pastor told Patch. He had hoped to livestream all the services, but discovered that his Wi-Fi lacked sufficient bandwidth. He said he had made arrangements for an IT services company to fix that right before the State put travel restrictions on non-essential services.

Vassak, who celebrated his 25th year as pastor at NBC last year, also hosts a radio show on WLAD Sunday mornings from 7-7:30. His weekly podcasts are distributed by Apple and iHeartMedia. He's no stranger to technology. But just like the operator of any small brick-and-mortar business forced to "go virtual" in the Age of COVID-19, he had concerns he might lose some of his regulars at 101 East Pembroke Road when he went brought everything onto the internet.

God, as it turns out, provides.

"We actually get twice as many views of the videos as people who used to show up!" the pastor said.

Vassak says he shares the same "concerns over the First Amendment" that are leading to jail time for some of his colleagues, and he is following the debate very closely.

"If circumstances don't line up with what they're asking us to do at some point, then I'm prepared to do what I have to do to make sure nobody's pulling a fast one on us," Vassak said. "But I don't think that's what's going on now."

In the meantime, he says he remains focused on leading his flock to the other side of the pandemic healthy, alive and connected. And the absolute only way out of this, Vassak says, is prayerfully. He says he and his congregation are investing extra time and effort to prayer since the start of the outbreak.

"That's my message: Pray. Trust the Lord," Vassak said. "As far as our country goes, pray for our leaders, pray for the protection and healing of our people, and for the Lord to turn our hearts towards Him."

There's a fine art to this age-old cooking technique. Here's how to get perfect hard-boiled eggs this Easter.

By Megan VerHelst, Patch Staff

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NWS: High wind watches issued for the area – Salina Post

Posted: at 7:21 pm

Lata Nott

By LATA NOTT

Our COVID-19 crisis has been escalating quickly and with it, the potential collision with the First Amendment over issues involving religious liberty and the right of assembly.

Last month, we thought that stopping the spread of the virus was a matter of washing our hands thoroughly and avoiding touching our faces.

Now, were unable to assemble in groups and many of us are confined to our homes.

Three weeks ago,President Trumpdreamed of packed churches on Easter Sunday. At the time, many medical experts found that overly optimistic (or as one put it,not rooted in reality.) Now, with theU.S. approaching 430,000 cases and the death toll nearing 15,000, it seems like an impossibility. Or at least, it should.

But as recently as this past Saturday, President Trump wasfloating the possibilityof making a special allowance for churches to have Easter services. Hes not the only politician to contemplate loosening the reins for the holidays. South CarolinaGov. Henry McMasterrecently issued a stay-at-home orderbut still recommended that Easter services continue. Kansas, Michigan and New Mexico currently exempt worship services from their orders prohibiting gatherings in large groups.

The fact that some government officials think this is worth the risk reflects the push back weve seen from some religious leaders ever since state and local governments started prohibiting large gatherings and shutting down non-essential businesses, including churches, synagogues and other houses of worship. For example, Louisiana pastorTony Spellhascontinued to lead in-person services, calling the closure of his Life Tabernacle Church religious persecution andquestioning whyretailers were deemed essential but churches not. We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says,Spell said in an interview.

But while Spell is framing the states order as a violation of his First Amendment rights, thats not actually the case. Along with being rooted in the publics best interest, its also important to note that the orders restricting the size of gatherings and shutting down non-essential businesses are, at this time, the least restrictive options available to protect public health. In short, this means theyre almost certainly constitutional but granting an exemption to one of these orders for houses of worship may not be.

The First Amendments Establishment Clause requires that the government treat secular and religious organizations equally, without favoring one over the other. AsRachel Laser, president and chief executive officer of Americans United for Separation of Church and State,put it, [W]hen health experts and public officials determine that large gatherings must be cancelled for the public good, we must follow their lead and apply these guidelines to secular and religious gatherings equally. The Constitution not only permits it, butdemandsit. Such restrictions do not violate religious freedom; they ensure religious freedom is not misused in ways that risk peoples lives.

This week I had the pleasure of moderating a (virtual) Freedom Forum panel onreligious freedom in the time of COVID-19and discussing these issues and more with legal expertsRichard FoltinandMaggie Garrett, atheist thought leaderMandisa Thomasand seminary-trained religious liberty advocateCharles Watson Jr.One question from the audience that stood out to me was from an attendee who wondered if there was more to the conversation than just religious freedom versus public health. Did these two values have to be on opposing sides? Werent there things that religious communities could proactively do in service of public health starting with asking their members to stay at home, of course, but going beyond that to encourage them to volunteer their time and monetary resources, donate blood and generally provide assistance to the most vulnerable members of our population? You can find thefull webinaron the Freedom Forums YouTube channel.

It was a reminder to me of the crucial charitable function that religious organizations have often served in crisis situations. As Baylor University professorsByron JohnsonandThomas Kiddpoint out,When it comes to confronting contemporary social turmoil, communities of faith have always played an important role in working toward solutions. Many religious organizations are doing this right now. Leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals andChristianity Todaypublished a joint statementreminding people that God cannot be consigned to a place. They added: It is one thing to risk your own life in order to worship together in person; it is quite another to risk the lives of countless others, when so many churches are finding creative and compelling ways to carry on in worship and community from a distance. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saintssuspended all services worldwide on March 12(a lifetime ago in the COVID-19 timeline). Houses of worship have been providing crucial material and social support to those who suddenly find themselves in need of it.

As the pandemic continues, my hope is that these narratives become more common and stories of church leaders risking the lives of their congregants seem like a distant memory.

Lata Nott is a Freedom Forum Fellow. Contact her via email at[emailprotected], or follow her on Twitter at@LataNott.

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‘Free Speech’ Supporter Jerry Falwell Jr. Thinks It’s Criminal To Report On His Dumb And Dangerous Response To The Pandemic – Techdirt

Posted: at 7:21 pm

from the that-ain't-free-speech,-champ dept

Jerry Falwell Jr., the nepotistic hire to be President of the religious extremist Liberty University, has long pretended to be an avid free speech supporter, especially on the campus for his University, where he has declared:

There have been sensational stories written about Liberty and censorship, rumors that we do not allow opposing views or First Amendment rights. But that is far from true. We uphold freedom and put its ideals into practice.

Apparently, that commitment to freedom and First Amendment rights gets completely thrown into the garbage the second some reporters write stories about Falwell's ridiculously dangerous decisions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. A few weeks back, when most of the rest of the country was, smartly, moving into lockdown mode, Falwell, reopened school and told Liberty University students to come back to campus after spring break -- a move that local officials described as "reckless."

Soon after that, both the NY Times and ProPublica ran stories talking to students on campus who were scared and nervous about everything. If you read both of the stories, they're both more than fair to Falwell, and provide plenty of clarity in why he made the decision and the various steps that Liberty University had taken to try to keep campus open while keeping social distancing rules (though, they both show that not everyone was following them). To be clear, I wouldn't say that either of the articles paint Falwell in a particularly bad light, beyond reminding everyone how frequently and vehemently Falwell played down the threat of COVID-19 in the earlier weeks.

Falwell seemed particularly angry at the NY Times piece though the story seems to keep changing as to why. There were claims that the Times quoted a doctor who claimed to run health services at the University, but that the University then released a press release saying he had no role at the University -- but in looking at that press release as I type this, I no longer see the claim that he had no role, only that he was misquoted. Similarly, the NY Times piece appears to be quoting Eppes accurately, and it's the Liberty press release that (at least as of right now) misrepresents what the Times piece claimed.

Either way, apparently, Falwell really doesn't care much at all about the First Amendment that he claims to support on campus, because earlier this week, he somehow convinced a magistrate judge to issue arrest warrants for two of the reporters: Alec MacGillis, who wrote the ProPublica story, and Julia Rendleman, a freelance photographer, who took photos included in the NY Times report. Some reports claimed that Falwell also sought, but was unable to get, an arrest warrant for the NY Times reporter who wrote the NY Times piece. When this first came out -- via former Fox News host Todd Starnes (who left Fox News after having on a guest who claimed that Democrats worship a pagan god who "allowed for child sacrifice") -- it was described as Falwell issuing warrants, and that's just not how warrants work at all.

Later clarifications showed that Falwell complained to local officials that the reporters were trespassing, and that's how a local magistrate agreed to issue misdemeanor arrest warrants. And, those warrants do exist, incredibly:

Falwell is, laughably, claiming that this is about protecting his students (the same ones he's now put at risk), rather than retaliation:

Falwell cast his decision to seek a case against the journalists as a move to protect his students, asserting that the journalists had probably come from coronavirus hot spots such as Washington, D.C., or New York, and that by being on campus they had put remaining Liberty students at risk. He also complained that Liberty was being singled out because of its status as a religious school.

This is obviously nonsense. It is clear that that this was retaliating against negative press over his own decisions. I imagine both the NY Times and Propublica will have strong arguments for why these warrants are ridiculous. The NY Times has already made it clear that this was not trespassing, and that the reporter had been invited to campus by a student.

David McCraw, in-house counsel for the Times, said in a statement, Julia was engaged in the most routine form of news gathering: taking an outdoors picture of a person who was interviewed for a news story. McCraw said Rendleman had been invited to campus by one of the students interviewed for the article.

We are disappointed that Liberty University would decide to make that into a criminal case and go after a freelance journalist because its officials were unhappy with press coverage of the universitys decision to convene classes in the midst of the pandemic, he added.

Meanwhile, Falwell is also threatening a defamation civil suit against the reporters if corrections aren't issued -- which seems to only highlight how all of this is retaliatory and about suppressing speech, rather than protecting students.

Filed Under: 1st amendment, alec macgillis, arrest warrants, covid-19, free speech, jerry falwell jr., julia rendleman, reporting, retaliation, trespassingCompanies: liberty university, ny times, propublica

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'Free Speech' Supporter Jerry Falwell Jr. Thinks It's Criminal To Report On His Dumb And Dangerous Response To The Pandemic - Techdirt

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Rep. Ted Lieu responds to being called an ‘agent of China’ – NBC News

Posted: at 7:21 pm

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., fired back on Twitter Friday after a social media user accused him of being an agent of China.

Lieu, who served in the Air Force and is currently in the reserve, had a sharp response after being accused of spreading Chinese propaganda. The Twitter user also called for Lieu to be charged with treason.

I served on active duty in the United States military to defend your right to say stupid, racist s--t about me, he tweeted.

The Twitter user had responded to Lieu's previous tweet that criticized those who still believe COVID-19 is "just like the flu." Lieu, whose known to be a vocal member of the House, told NBC Asian America that speaking up comes with a fair share of racist replies. He explained that his duty to defending the Constitution and calling out racism are not mutually exclusive concepts.

When I served in the Air Force, and as a Member of Congress, I took an oath to defend the Constitution, he said. The First Amendment allows for people to make racist statements. At the same time, we need to stand up to racists. The First Amendment allows for that, too."

The racist social media post comes during a time when Asian Americans have been confronting a rise in racist attacks and hate violence tied the coronavirus pandemic. Reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate has received more than 1,110 self-reported incidents of hate, including assault and vandalism, from March 19 to April 1. Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii spearheaded a letter to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Friday, calling for the issuance of official guidance to federal agencies on preventing and addressing anti-Asian racism and xenophobia.

Kimmy Yam is a reporter for NBC Asian America.

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Rep. Ted Lieu responds to being called an 'agent of China' - NBC News

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