Go to Church, Go to Jail

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Who ever thought we’d see this in America?

Today, the police came for Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of the River at Tampa Bay Church in Hillsborough County, Florida.

His crime—holding church services.

Following many other jurisdictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Hillsborough County last week issued a stay-at-home order that took effect on March 27, except for the activities typically defined as “essential”—grocery shopping, medical services, etc.

However, the evangelical church of 4,000 members nonetheless proceeded with its services yesterday. And merely a day later, the pastor has been arrested, jailed, and charged: unlawful assembly and violation of health emergency rules are the two counts.

Let me be clear—I do believe that gatherings of 4,000 are a very bad idea during this time. I do not agree with the pastor’s decision to continue in-person services, and I would certainly not attend one myself right now.

But the man was not cited, nor fined, nor any other alternative action taken. He was handcuffed. Arrested. Jailed. And publicly denounced at a press conference as having “reckless disregard for human life.” For having church. In America.

COVID-19 is a serious disease and its severity must not be diminished. Tragically, it has already taken 3,000 lives in the United States and that number will go up. But keep in mind—the flu ended over 34,000 American lives last year, and 61,000 the year before that.

Would people tolerate arrests and jailings for just “the flu”? If not, why not? If any gathering constitutes “reckless disregard for human life” amid a disease that has killed 3,000 Americans, wasn’t it 10 or 20 times more reckless to do so these past flu seasons?

In response to flu comparisons, experts always point to the mortality rate. COVID kills about 3-5% of those infected, versus 0.1% for seasonal flu. Point taken. But what is the real difference if people are still dying? It is somehow less important or tragic when a life is taken by the flu instead of by COVID?

We do not know how many people will ultimately die from COVID-19. What we do know from history, however, is that there is no greater threat to liberty than government plus a crisis.

Quarantining infected persons for a limited duration is absolutely sensible and necessary. So are measures for thorough sanitation, and guidelines to avoid unnecessary activities.

But arresting people? Jailing them? Shaming them? Sending the National Guard from door to door? Does that sound like America, or more like China? I’m sorry, but there is no suspension clause in the Constitution for pandemics.

People will agree to just about anything when they fear their lives are at risk. Reason and rationality go out the window. When you step back for a minute, though, how can you be sure where this will end?

The American government is now jailing people with little opposition because of a disease that has killed 3,000. In the future, what does keep them from just using another disease—like the flu—or any “public health” justification to break up inconvenient gatherings and arrest their organizers?

What keeps them from permanently closing churches, as Comrade de Blasio has already threatened? What keeps a future Democrat in the White House from citing this precedent to declare a ridiculous “existential climate crisis,” or a “gun crisis”?

Do not count on the courts. They are corrupt. In fact, they will actively enable such insanity if enough Democrat appointees have been installed. And frankly, they are also powerless. Even if a federal court did by some chance strike it down, there is nothing to keep the president from just ignoring it. They’ll be charged, or arrested, you say? Well, the federal marshals would have to execute the warrant. And they report to the president.

The so-called “rule of law” in America is nothing more than a paper tiger. The words of the Constitution have no inherent power apart from the armed officers tasked with protecting them. COVID-19 is exposing more and more each day just how tenuous that foundation has been all along.

The truth, frankly, is nothing will stop the steady march of tyranny, except the rage and rebellion of the populace. But can we really count on that?

Make no mistake—this is dangerous. The decrees and arrests might seem to make sense now, but they always do at the time. Fear and panic is the tried-and-true path to power for aspiring dictators. It can happen here.

Will we let it happen?

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”