Free Exercise of Religion and Public Policy

Free Exercise of Religion and Public Policy

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Jack Arnold started this petition to Governor Jay Inslee

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution assures citizens, “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 Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment withdraws from legislative power, state and federal, the exertion of any restraint on the free exercise of religion. Its purpose is to secure religious liberty in the individual by prohibiting any invasions there by civil authority.”1 The freedom of religion is the first of all freedoms protected in the Bill of Rights. This emphasizes its great importance to not only the founding fathers of the United States but the many people who fled religious persecution and came to America in order to have religious freedom. They wanted to make sure this newly formed government did not take this freedom away. 

We assert that local Washington State authorities are violating our constitutional and foundational American rights to freedom of religion, liberty, and right to assemble. Learning the lessons of history, when basic rights are violated, we believe that we are called to speak up sooner rather than later. We have so far complied and observed the State’s changing and nebulous edicts because we know that this is a difficult time to govern, and we respect and appreciate the extremely challenging position that our leaders are in. Moreover, we know that decisions were motivated by a desire to be thoughtful of our neighbors and community. Loving our neighbors is a core tenet of our faith, and so we wholeheartedly support that. To be clear, we intend to operate safely in our community, and have chosen to temporarily comply with the governor’s suspension of our ability to assemble together. However, we take issue with the unilateral extension of the timeline, and even more so with discriminatory application of the State’s decrees; especially when there are conflicting scientific opinions on the efficacy of this order. 

The State is imposing its own belief system by making arbitrary judgments for which organizations are essential vs. not essential. This sort of value-based judgment is the very definition of religion. Religion is: “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.”2. The supreme importance of our State says that alcohol, marijuana, and elective abortions are essential; while the church’s religion of entering into personal face to face relationship with the downtrodden and afflicted is not essential. This work of the church can be safely done 6 feet apart similar to buying groceries, shopping at the hardware store, buying a cell phone, buying alcohol, etc. It is our position that the State’s discrimination is arbitrary according to its own determination of what is important to society, rather than objectively balanced with the belief systems of all of its constituents and lacks any accommodations for protected freedoms. This represents a constitutional violation of the separation of church and state. Bans on church meetings discriminate against Christians (and other faiths) by preventing, denying, impairing, and by making unlawful the full and free exercise of our faith; mostly notably, in our ability to peaceably assemble in order to exercise our faith, under law and penalty thereof. 

We request that you stop the inherently discriminatory judgments involved in determining what is essential in society and what is not essential. Rather, we ask you to base your judgments on objective standards that dictate whether an organization can operate and how it can operate. Standards such as cleaning protocols that need to be observed, specific numbers of people allowed into buildings based on square footage, masks or other precautions, a certain number of feet for social distancing, etc. 

Any organization who is able to demonstrate that they are observing clear and objective guidelines should be allowed to operate within these guidelines. The government should determine appropriate guidelines based on scientific requirements to maintain health and safety, but they should cease judging the essentiality of any organization. To do so is a violation of our American rights, which is a higher law than Washington State law. We are unable to exercise our religion freely in this environment. Church is defined as a gathering of people, an in-person assembly, and a core tenet of our faith is that we become as family with one another. Therefore, we cannot fully live out our faith or fulfill core purpose remotely or digitally. While some of our constituents may be able to make do for a time with only online livestreaming of worship and teaching, many others are faltering and struggling in isolation on their own as our freedom of assembly is restricted. We believe that being ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ’s love in the lives of these individuals is essential to both their well-being and us living out our faith. In this environment of isolation, we are learning the most vulnerable among us are at greater risk and abuses such as domestic violence and others are increasing. We are having a very difficult time even assessing who may be in need, whether spiritual, financial or emotional. In sum, the church does not fulfill its mission without the ability to assemble in person in community with one another, even if that assembly is required to adhere to strict heath guidelines for a time. 

Considering our rights as Americans and our religious conviction that we are called by God to care for people in person, we ask you to issue necessary guidelines that we must adhere to in order to resume our freedom to assemble and our essential operation as a church that ministers in our local community. 

The First Amendment guarantees the right of religious operation above that of any other non-religious. Please do not conflate religious assembly with the assembly with any other organization. The church is the expression of the constitutional right of religion, its free exercise, and its assembly. Absent of the necessary guidelines, we are concerned, that we will reach a point where there is growing scientific consensus it is safe to assemble, but the government has not yet provided the needed clarity. 

Martin Luther King once wrote, “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. ... An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”3 

This country that was founded by people escaping religious persecutions, began with promised religious freedoms, was fortified with a Constitution and Bill of Rights guaranteeing inalienable rights from the Creator, and those documents assure that those rights cannot be taken away. If you do not provide such health guidelines and remove your personally defined essential restriction, we will then be forced to both make our own judgments regarding how to resume our operations in a safe manner that is in accordance with CDC guidelines, and explore our legal options for addressing the loss of our First Amendment rights. 

- Pastor Jack Arnold and the Leadership at Calvary Mt Si, North Bend WA. 

1 https://constitution.findlaw.com/amendment1/annotation05.html#f178 Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 222 -23 (1963).

2 https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/religion

3 Martin Luther King. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963) 

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