The Supreme Court swerves into a decent decision

On Friday, the Supreme Court issued a 6-3 decision holding that, while California cannot ban indoor church services entirely, it can restrict churches to 25% of their full capacity as well as ban all singing and chanting.  This is better than nothing, but, considering the First Amendment, it's still not good enough.

This ruling is good, but there are deeper reasons why religious exercise deserves special protections from government restrictions.  It is not just to protect our right to attend our churches or synagogues.  It is so that we can develop the moral understanding necessary to administer government.  American citizens must have a morality they can impart to government because government is incapable of morality.

The stricture of the First Amendment suggests that the Founders fully understood this principle:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Bill of Rights begins with a series of inalienable rights.  The first impression is of six independent parts: (1) establishment of religion, (2) exercise of religion, (3) free speech, (4) free press, (5) peaceable assembly, and (6) petitioning the government for redress of grievances.  However, these six parts can also be seen as three connected pairs:

  1. Establishment and exercise of religion
  2. Free speech and free press
  3. Peaceably assemble and petition government

The first pair recognizes the source of our morality.

The second pair is the free expression of ideas by voice or print.  Those ideas are derived partly from the protected exercise of religion.

The third pair is the understanding that the assembled people are necessary to provide the government's direction.

Thus, the First Amendment states six specific rights, with three general applications, all to serve one purpose: it is an inalienable right for discerning, moral people to be able to communicate to government when it has become immoral.  The amendment establishes religion and its exercise as the basis for the whole process.

Our speech is not separate from our religion; it communicates our moral understanding.  The Framers recognized that moral people formed by religious observance were necessary to impel the government in the way it should operate.  For religion to function morally, it is to operate without restriction.

Where does a free press fit into this?  In 1791, the press was an actual machine that people used to communicate information and ideas.  There was no "media" class.  The British recognized that free written communication was powerful and sought to regulate it by destroying actual presses.  Today, the free press should have the same meaning it did in 1791: people may own the machines to distribute information, and the government may not regulate their use, whether they are paper presses or computers.

Each pair highlights something the people should be free to use.  Government cannot touch our churches and religious institutions because they are necessary for our knowledge and enlightenment.  Government cannot control any tools — including our voices — that we use to communicate our ideas and values.  Finally, the government cannot control our relationships with others or our gatherings to communicate directly to the government itself.  Not one of these rights should be restrained.

John Adams stated clearly the moral principles underlying the First Amendment:

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

The framers wisely connected these three rights.  They understood the combined right of greater power than each of them alone has.  The Supreme Court has correctly decided that religion cannot be considered of lesser value than other activities of the citizens.

However, the justices have failed to see that it is our unrestricted religious institutions that give us the moral direction to communicate and gather to seek corrections for government wrong.  By allowing California to direct worship, they are still ceding too much power to the government.

Image: Photo by Shaun Frankland on Unsplash.