By Guy Page
Does Vermont have one social-distancing rule for worshippers, and another for protesters? Even though the Constitution specifically protects both freedoms?
Since March, almost all of the estimated 21% of Vermonters regularly attending worship services have abided by Vermont state of emergency restrictions limiting religious gatherings. Despite questions and misgivings among some about constitutionality, citizen-worshippers have observed both the letter of the law and the Spirit of the Golden Rule.
This weekend, as many Vermonters were preparing at home to return to their churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. for the first time since the state of emergency began, they saw TV coverage of hundreds of Black Lives Matter-affiliated protesters gathered in Battery Park in Burlington. Most but not all wore masks. Few were six feet apart.
From a social-distancing perspective, it was a train wreck.
At today’s press conference, Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine said they are urging protesters to get tested. The Health Department is monitoring for possible outbreak, although as yet there are no signs. They said little to discourage future gatherings. At one point Scott said rallyers are being “encouraged” to socially distance, but will not be required to comply “due to their constitutional rights.”
This uncharacteristically hands-off approach to flagrant public disregard for social distancing prompted this request to Gov. Scott from Vermont Daily:
Governor thank you for this press availability and for all your hard work. You said earlier the rallyers this weekend are being encouraged to socially distance but will not be required to do so due to their constitutional rights. Please explain why our Constitutional right to protest is allowed to continue during the State of Emergency, but assembling to express our Constitutional freedom of religion has not been permitted until recently. To some it seems like a double standard where the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Gov. Scott answered: “If we could enforce the situation in some manner … we would rather people socially distance themselves. … but we just can’t. We just have to play the cards we’re dealt. We don’t want to preclude anyone from exercising their constitutional rights. This is a time of grief, anxiety, and frustration, and we want people to be able to express that.”
Looking for a silver lining, talk show host Kurt Wright of WVMT’s Morning Drive asked if there is no outbreak among protesters, would the state of Vermont open up other large gathering events such as Lake Monster baseball games and bars. To summarize the answer: the decision to fully reopen Vermont to all previously permitted activities will be data-driven.
“Data-driven” has been Levine’s and the governor’s go-to response — except, apparently, in the special case of public protest. In this case the deciding factors are “constitutional rights” and people’s need to express themselves. Here, the social-distancing “thou shalt” imperative has been softened to “thou shouldst.”
The purpose of the rally is not the issue. Some religious Vermonters support Black Lives Matter, some do not. All oppose murder in all of its forms. If it had been Franklin Graham, Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama holding hands and praying for world peace, no one would be surprised or upset if they were reminded to stand six feet apart.
It might be argued that this exception is both prudent short-term (keeps the peace) and wise long term (doesn’t set bad precedent.) Vermonters surely do not want their government prohibiting peaceful protest of an arm of that very same government. Still — it does look like the squeaky wheel got the grease this time.
Read more of Guy Page’s reports. Vermont Daily is sponsored by True North Media.