Religious freedom and the coronavirus pandemic
April 10, 2020
No group in America is more sensitive about religious freedom than the Jewish community. Although we have many differences of opinion concerning public policy issues I think it is fair to say we speak with one voice when it comes to defending religious freedom. Government’s non-interference in how, when or with whom a person prays or otherwise expresses his religious beliefs and convictions is a cornerstone of American pluralism.
The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is clear and unambiguous; the very first words of the 1st Amendment are, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These words precede even the free speech, free press and freedom to assemble rights, which Congress may also not abridge or impede.
But no freedom gifted to humanity by Divine Providence is granted to us unfettered, unqualified or unconditional. With each freedom comes the responsibility to exercise that freedom in concordance with the rights of other fellow citizens. Among those other rights, as articulated in our Declaration of Independence is the “right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit [but not necessarily the attainment] of Happiness.
To secure these collective rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, the Declaration continues, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed... ”
The government that “We the People” instituted and ordained in our Constitution gave that government, and through the 14th Amendment our State governments, express authority, “to promote the general Welfare” of the American people in every generation.
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, now we are engaged in a great public health war, where the invisible enemy is striking our citizens without regard to their race, religion, level of faith or politics; and causing suffering, death, sorrow and disruption of everyday life.
Our defensive soldiers on the front lines are taking disproportionate casualties as they administer to the sick and dying in a desperate attempt to control and defeat this insidious enemy which is destroying our economy and our way of life.
We are being tested in a way we have never been tested before to see if our nation and our society conceived in liberty and freedom can endure. We are mobilizing the best, the brightest and the most courageous among us to come up with the vaccine and other medicines that will defeat this extremely contagious virus.
In the interim, we are using known effective strategies to mitigate the spread of this disease so as not to overwhelm our public health facilities and to mitigate the illness and death among our people.
Among these strategies are the use of masks or alternate coverings, quarantine and social distancing, which can only be effective if all our citizens participate and comply with these practices. This is a public health emergency and failure of any citizen to comply with these practices detrimentally effects and demotes, as opposed to promoting, the general welfare of the American people.
When the general welfare of the American people is seriously endangered as in the current situation, all our freedoms are put in jeopardy. The state and federal governments have a constitutional duty to enforce the current strategies of using masks, quarantine, and social distancing without exception. Failure to do so is dereliction of duty.
In the current environment, those who, under the guise of freedom of religion, gather in a large assembly and in close proximity to pray at their respective houses of worship are endangering the general welfare of the American people. They are not exercising their freedom of religion in a responsible way, and are devaluing the lives of Americans. By not socially distancing themselves in worship, they are ironically distancing themselves from the Divine Presence.
If you wish to comment or respond you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do so in a rational, thoughtful, respectful and civil manner.
Mel Pearlman holds B.S. & M.S. degrees in physics as well as a J.D. degree and initially came to Florida in 1966 to work on the Gemini and Apollo space programs. He has practiced law in Central Florida since 1972. He has served as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando; was a charter board member, first vice president and pro-bono legal counsel of the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Central Florida, as well as holding many other community leadership positions.