For Easter, a federal judge wrote a luminous decision defending religious liberty

On Saturday, American Thinker pointed out that Democrat-run jurisdictions, at both the state and the local level, seem to be enjoying a little too much the power that a public health emergency has put into their hands. One of the examples was the order Mayor Greg Fischer issued in Louisville, Kentucky. He banned all Easter services, including drive-ins, and explicitly instructed his police department to write down the license plate numbers of people attending a drive-in Easter Sunday service.

The On Fire Christian Center sought an emergency temporary restraining order in the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. Not only did Judge Justin R. Walker, a Trump appointee, issue the restraining order, he also wrote a stirring and almost poetic defense of religious liberty in America. You can read the entire 20-page decision here, but this post will highlight just a few examples of the points Judge Walker made to support his order.

The decision begins by describing how, more than anything else, America was built the idea of religious liberty. He explains how the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth willingly suffered hardships in their search for a promised land and a place to worship freely, and how America’s drive for freedom of worship led to the Constitution’s unique promise that government may not interfere with the “free exercise” of religion.

At the time of that Amendment’s ratification, religious liberty was among the American experiment’s most audacious guarantees. For millennia, soldiers had fought and killed to impose their religious doctrine on their neighbors. A century before America’s founding, in Germany alone, religious conflict took the lives of one out of every five men, women, and children. But not so in America. “Among the reasons the United States is so open, so tolerant, and so free is that no person may be restricted or demeaned by government in exercising his or her religion.” (Footnotes omitted.)

Walker acknowledges that pockets of America have failed to live up to this audacious idea. Sometimes these actors were individuals and sometimes they were government entities. While individual actors are bad, the consequences are profound when it's government that impinges on religious worship:

It threatens liberty of all kinds. That’s because, as de Tocqueville wrote, “religion, which among the Americans never directly takes part in the government of society, must be considered as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not give them the taste for liberty, it singularly facilitates use of it.” (Footnote omitted.)

From this starting point, Walker discusses the facts of the case, which boil down to Mayor Fischer’s conclusion that COVID-19 allowed him to use police power to block all forms of worship, even if parishioners remained in their cars, separated from each other.

Walker acknowledges that society has an interest in preventing a deadly disease from spreading. However, that does not mean the state can engage in “‘a plain, palpable invasion of rights secured by the fundamental law.’”

One of the main problems with Mayor Fischer’s edict is that it manifestly is not neutral but is targeted at religious worship. The Mayor is fine with other drive-through behaviors, “including, for example, drive-through liquor stores.” The Mayor also did not ban parking lots, “including, again, the parking lots of liquor stores.”

Indeed, Walker notes, Louisville holds that liquor stores are an “essential” activity, allowing drive-through liquor stores with pick-up windows, parking in lots outside of liquor stores, and even entering liquor stores while others were shopping. And it was in this context that Judge Walker wrote timeless words that should go down in American judicial history:

The Court does not mean to impugn the perfectly legal business of selling alcohol, nor the legal and widely enjoyed activity of drinking it. But if beer is “essential,” so is Easter.

There are several pages more of strong legal analysis supporting Judge Walker’s conclusion that Mayor Fischer violated the Constitution. In closing, though, Judge Walker doesn’t summon the law. He looks, instead, to the faith that underpins Christianity and that our Constitution protects:

The Christians of On Fire . . . owe no one an explanation for why they will gather together this Easter Sunday to celebrate what they believe to be a miracle and a mystery. True, they can attempt to explain it. True, they can try to teach. But to the nonbeliever, the Passion of Jesus – the betrayals, the torture, the state-sponsored murder of God’s only Son, and the empty tomb on the third day – makes no sense at all. And even to the believer, or at least to some of them, it can be incomprehensible as well.

But for the men and women of On Fire, Christ’s sacrifice isn’t about the logic of this world. Nor is their Easter Sunday celebration. The reason they will be there for each other and their Lord is the reason they believe He was and is there for us. For them, for all believers, “it isn’t a matter of reason; finally, it’s a matter of love.

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