Independence Day has been celebrated in our nation for nearly 250 years, but this year’s celebration should feel different from years past. While many are hopeful about a post-pandemic future, we should think about how many of us saw our liberties seriously challenged by the government over the past year.
Like in Nevada, where the U.S. Supreme Court denied Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley’s request to strike down the state’s unconstitutional 50-person cap on church services in July 2020. Nevada enforced this cap on houses of worship even as it allowed casinos and other types of businesses to operate at 50 percent capacity. Justice Gorsuch said in his dissent of the Nevada ruling, “The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesar’s Palace over Calvary Chapel.”
Thankfully, the courts have more recently begun siding with churches that were unfairly singled out by state and local mandates. In November 2020, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the state of New York could not unfairly target and restrict church gatherings. While these positive court rulings should inspire hope for the future of religious liberty in America, the jurisprudence and the actions taken by government authorities throughout this past year should still be on our minds as we celebrate America’s independence.
We should consider how much of our freedom we are willing to give away in exchange for the government’s promise of protection. Benjamin Franklin’s answer to that question was: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” This pandemic provided an opening for state and local governments to challenge our freedoms—most significantly our freedom of worship and assembly—in unprecedented ways. In California, churches were asked to submit to stringent restrictions that stated, “Places of worship must, therefore, discontinue singing and chanting activities and limit indoor attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower.” Although the government does have a role during these times, as the Supreme Court stated in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Andrew Cuomo, “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”
Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in 1998, “It is neither desirable nor is it remotely likely that civil liberty will occupy as favored a position in wartime as it does in peacetime…the laws will thus not be silent in time of war, but they will speak with a somewhat different voice.” However, the entire point of natural rights is that they are universal and objective. Violating them does not become any more justifiable in times of crisis.
When the pandemic began, Americans were initially encouraged to quarantine for two weeks to slow the spread. Most churches and businesses voluntarily closed their doors and accepted what they believed would be a temporary shutdown. Instead, even once houses of worship could safely reopen with COVID precautions in place, churches spent much of last year appealing to courts for relief from unequal treatment and unconstitutional restrictions on worship. Thankfully, the courts eventually sided with churches and agreed that First Amendment protections cannot be violated in the name of public health and safety, nor can churches be treated more severely than secular businesses.
Independence Day should be more than a day off from work to set off fireworks and eat apple pie. This year, in particular, should be a day of reflection for all of us as we acknowledge and give thanks for the blessing of living in the greatest and freest country in the world. If we want it to stay that way, we must take a stand in the face of fear and protect the rights granted to us by God, fought for in 1776, enshrined in our Bill of Rights, and through our history, finally fulfilled for all Americans.
Damon Sidur is a Communications intern at Family Research Council.