Americans are rightfully engaging in prudential measures to protect themselves, their families and their communities from COVID-19.
But as this virus — and the reaction to it — has advanced, Americans have seen another more ancient threat reemerge in our society: excessive government.
While COVID-19 is a threat to human health, excessive government is a threat to human liberty.
Americans should act with thoughtfulness and diligence to preserve both health and liberty. We want not only to live but also to live free.
Some politicians have a different view. They have used the threat this virus poses to public health to threaten a fundamental liberty.
They should be exposed and opposed.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City has issued perhaps the most outrageous threat. His target: the free exercise of religion.
At a press briefing on Friday, de Blasio revealed that "enforcement agents" — including the New York police and fire departments — would be out this weekend looking to shut down any religious services they discovered taking place.
First, de Blasio admitted that most religious organizations had voluntarily suspended their ordinary services.
"So many of our religious leaders have really taken a lead and said to their congregation, said to members of our faith communities that we have to act differently now," de Blasio said. "A vast majority of houses of worship have stopped their traditional worship service. If they could, they went online, they went on the radio, whatever they could do, but they've stopped gathering people, understanding the nature of the crisis."
Then de Blasio issued a warning to congregations that have not shut down services.
"A small number of religious communities, specific churches, specific synagogues, are unfortunately not paying attention to this guidance (to shut down) even though it's been so widespread," de Blasio said. "So, I want to say to all those who are preparing the potential of religious services this weekend: If you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services."
Is the mayor of New York City truly saying his government will send out "enforcement agents" to "shut down" religious services?
But that is not the greatest threat he is making to the city's religious organizations.
"No faith tradition endorses anything that endangers the members of that faith," said de Blasio. "So, the NYPD, Fire Department, Buildings Department, and everyone has been instructed that if they see worship services going on, they will go to the officials of that congregation, they'll inform them they need to stop the services and disperse. If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently."
De Blasio knows he is not going to have to take on the Catholic Church with this edict — and permanently close St. Patrick's Cathedral.
On March 14, the Archdiocese of New York voluntarily suspended public masses. Two days later, it closed Catholic schools. On March 15, the Diocese of Brooklyn announced it was also canceling public masses. Five days later, that diocese additionally announced it was postponing weddings and baptisms and would eventually hold memorial masses in lieu of funerals that are canceled now.
While de Blasio was issuing his threat to permanently close places of worship that dared to hold services during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia was doubling down on his claimed power to make religious gatherings a crime.
As noted in this column last week, Northam issued an executive order on March 23 making it a Class 1 misdemeanor — punishable by up to a year in prison — to hold public or private "in-person gatherings of 10 or more individuals." Although Northam's order did not expressly state that this prohibition applied to religious services, a "Frequently Asked Questions" sheet he published along with the order stated that it did. His press secretary also confirmed that point to this writer.
On March 30, Northam issued another order telling Virginians they must "stay at home" except for a limited number of purposes. While the order did allow someone to travel to and from a "place of worship," it further stated: "All public and private in-person gatherings of more than ten individuals are prohibited. This includes parties, celebrations, religious, or other social events, whether they occur indoor or outdoor."
Northam's new order makes it explicit: Holding a "religious" event attended by more than 10 people is a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Government attacks on freedom of conscience and the free exercise of religion are no longer rare in American life. President Barack Obama's administration issued a regulation — under the "Obamacare" law — ordering Americans to buy health insurance plans that covered abortifacient drugs.
Obama fought all the way to the Supreme Court to establish that the government has the power to order people to be complicit in the taking of innocent human life. The court did not ultimately settle that issue.
Now the mayor of New York is threatening to permanently close houses of worship if too many people go there to pray during a national crisis.
COVID-19 is not the only pathogen Americans need to worry about these days. Another is the pursuit of unwarranted power by unprincipled politicians.
(Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor in chief of CNSNews.com.)