By John Klar
Vermont Governor Phil Scott’s administration recently initiated a COVID testing regime for a tiny rural church. Problem is, no congregant appears to have been infected, and the person whom the state says tested COVID-positive did not attend services — but the congregation was asked to get tested anyway. Vermont being one of the most secular states in the nation (and ranked last in church attendance), it is hard to trust the state’s intentions when it employs utter falsehoods to launch an attack on an innocent congregation.
Vermont’s Health Department issued an alert:
At least one person attended a church service in Irasburg, Vermont, while infected with COVID-19, health officials have learned. As such, health officials are asking anyone who attended a service at New Hope Bible Church on Sunday, Nov. 22, to get tested for the coronavirus. Everyone associated with the church who’s tested positive thus far has been contacted by the health department, but contact tracers have been unable to get all the information they need to inform other people who may have been exposed, officials said. Health officials also stress the need for the public to provide full information to contact tracers. “This is how outbreaks can start, and why it’s important for people to cooperate and be forthcoming when our contact tracing teams call,” [Health Commissioner] Dr. Levine said.
This missive implies that the church was noncompliant, exposing people to risk. In fact, the pastor was skeptical of the state’s claims and asked them to verify their (faulty) information. (Some would argue this is how outbreaks start — when incompetent bureaucrats get angry when their errors are exposed). In a Nov. 28 Facebook video, the pastor explained the facts (at 7:27):
When they come to condemn a church, or any other organization or person, they should have their facts straight. This person was not even in our church on the 22nd…. So all of this really could have been avoided, if they had just gone to the person first and asked “Where have you been, what have you done?” And then they would have had their information correct…. That is the only way to get our facts straight in gaining ground in fighting this….
Vermont then showed citizens it had no interest in getting the facts straight, Governor Scott saying “We feel confident in the approach we took and our reaction in the contact tracing.” However “confident” Phil Scott may “feel,” calling a pastor a liar and impugning the integrity of a Christian church does not engender confidence in the public. The pastor retorted (at 1:25), with facts:
So church family, the person that I was told last week was positive and in our church was not in our church on the 22nd. I am sorry for the situation this has put you in on choosing who to believe. You know that I am not perfect, and have sin struggles… but lying is not one of them.
Vermont’s Health Department clearly made errors in Irasburg. Instead of owning those mistakes, Governor Scott has tried to scapegoat a defenseless church.
The United States Supreme Court struck down the COVID restrictions of Governors Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo because of visible prejudices against people of faith. The Court wrote:
Stemming the spread of COVID–19 is unquestionably a compelling interest, but it is hard to see how the challenged regulations can be regarded as “narrowly tailored.” ….Not only is there no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID–19 but there are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services. ….even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here… strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.
Vermont’s ineptitude in dealing with New Hope Bible Church is arguably worse than a “narrow tailoring” — it is “incompetent fabric,” unsuitable even for governor-emperors with no clothes. No one with COVID attended services on the day alleged! The (typically secular) attitude is to dismiss such complaints, as did Cuomo. But dismissing the United States Supreme Court’s Free Speech rulings is not behavior any American should take lightly! Governor Scott’s nonchalant waive of the hand is similarly dismissive, of truth.
The rejoinder to all of these governors is forcefully explicated by Justice Neil Gorsuch in his recent concurrence:
The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as “essential” as what happens in secular spaces…. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids…. Nor is the problem an isolated one. In recent months, certain other Governors have issued similar edicts. At the flick of a pen, they have asserted the right to privilege restaurants, marijuana dispensaries, and casinos over churches, mosques, and temples…. Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical… we may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack. Things never go well when we do.
John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield, and the former pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield. This commentary originally appeared at American Thinker.