State restrictions on the gathering of persons during the coronavirus crisis has unleashed a deluge of criticism. Touting first amendment rights to freedom of religion and assembly, Christian voices are chief among them. Many have condemned restrictions on public worship as constitutionally dubious at best, and disdainful of religious rights at worst. The desire to return to public worship is eminently laudable. Thankfully, this day will arrive soon for Catholics, to the delight of many. One would be hard pressed to find a Catholic bishop, priest, or lay person comfortable with the Church’s sacramental life severely limited for an indefinite period of time.
In the public square, however, one must avoid false dichotomies. A person’s support of restrictions in order to curtail risks of infection does not imply he disdains religious liberty. Nor are reasonable restrictions demonstrative of religious persecution. If this were the case, the government must be just as prejudiced against hair salons and exercise facilities as it is against religious entities. Barbers have rights, too, don’t they? Moreover, this false dichotomy risks demeaning the real persecution Christians face every day throughout the world. A straw victim only brings straw justice.
Discussions about why certain entities—like liquor stores and drug dispensaries—remain open while others—like churches and libraries—remain closed are legitimate and should continue. For this reason, the U.S. Attorney General has warned governors about religious specific restrictions. Should these types of discriminatory restrictions surface, then their irrationality can and must spur the strongest opposition possible. But unless they contradict an ordinance of reason, Catholics must respect the political order and adhere to its laws. Governments are full of unjust laws. A measured protocol oriented toward public health is not one of them.
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