Coronavirus, Masks, & Religious Exception

2 Timothy 1:7 declares that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

I agree with Jesuit priest James Martin’s position that quarantine, suspension of mass and social distancing are self-sacrificial acts of charity and love of others. But I slso agree with Pope Francis that it is wrong for government to thwart access to the sacrements.

Here in America, however, we have a supremely powerful First-Amendment. Of all Constitutional amendments, our founders thought it to be the most necessary—even more necessary than prohibitions of cruel and unusual punishments. Religion and speech proceed hand-in-glove, for how can one practice religion without also being able to speak of such religion in the exercise and apologetics thereof? The First Amendment, therefore, is the very thing that carves out exceptions to public law and public policy for denominations and assemblies such as Amish and Jehovah’s Witnesses. While it might be hard to perceive from the outside why adherents would eschew vaccinations which we as a society believe to be safe and necessary, it is nevertheless necessary to recognize that their beliefs do not directly harm us if we ourselves vaccinate in accordance with our policies. In other words, if we vaccinate ourselves against measles, we have no basis to fear measles infection from an unvaccinated person.

Faith is both a practice and an exercise. One practices faith by attending religious services, but one exercises faith by exalting God’s omnipotence above mankind’s limited understanding. As much as wearing a mask is an act of charity, wearing a mask is just as easily an act of cowardice. When all is said and done, I come down on the side of civil liberty that the burden lies with individual responsibility rather than with social duty. For me, refusing a mask declares my reliance on God to protect me from disease and pestilence. And if I am protected—by virtue of the immune system which God gave to mankind, by virtue of my stewardship in maintaining a healthy body, and by virtue of God’s sovereign hand—then it also follows that I cannot spread disease to others. Wearing a mask is a self-defeating act which weakens my faith and makes me psychosomatically more vulnerable to disease. Moreover, refusing a mask is both an evangelistic statement as much as an invitation to speak of my faith when asked about my unmasked visage.

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A Society of Speech

Two days ago a man asked me why I was carrying so many papers with me. My response was not as articulate as I would have liked it to have been, so this is what I wish I had said: We are a nation built on words and the ideas which those words express, a nation that considers words the ultimate weapon. Of all the constitutional amendments, the very first one sets out to protect speech above all else. It is no accident that it is the first of all amendments nor that it is immediately followed by the protection of arms and a militia. We must speak first and fight second.

Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971)

During the Vietnam conflict/war, Paul Robert Cohen wore a (leather?) jacket bearing the words “Fuck the Draft” into the Los Angeles Municipal Court building. Upon entering an actual courtroom, however, he removed and folded his jacket over his arm. He again donned the jacket upon leaving the courtroom and a city officer thereupon arrested and charged him with violating California Penal Code § 415 which prohibited “maliciously and willfully disturb[ing] the peace or quiet of any neighborhood or person . . . by . . . offensive conduct. . . .” Continue Reading

Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987)

Houston v. Hill is a remarkable U.S. Supreme Court case that tackles abuses of power by police departments. The Supreme Court decided 7-2 that a Houston, Texas ordinance that was routinely used to arrest citizens for merely “arguing, talking, interfering, failing to remain quiet, refusing to remain silent, verbal abuse, cursing, verbally yelling, and talking loudly” toward a police officer.

Not only did the Supreme Court rule this type of conduct to be protected First Amendment speech, but the Supreme Court also expressed that the right to question police conduct is a fundamental distinction between democracy and dictatorship.Continue Reading

Lewis v. New Orleans, 415 U.S. 130 (1974)

Back in the 1970s, Louisiana had a statute making it “unlawful and a breach of the peace for any person wantonly to curse or revile or to use obscene or opprobrious language toward or with reference to any member of the city police while in the actual performance of his duty.” After much procedural harangue that included affirmation by the Louisiana Supreme Court, the United States Supreme Court held that such statute “is not susceptible of application to speech, although vulgar or offensive, that is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 18-22 (1971); Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4-5 (1949); Gooding v. Wilson, supra, at 520. Since [the law], as construed by the Louisiana Supreme Court, is susceptible of application to protected speech, the section is constitutionally overbroad and therefore is facially invalid.” Read the full opinion on Google Scholar.