Editor’s note: This commentary is by Todd Fillmore, a resident of Shrewsbury, Vermont.
Since March, Gov. Phil Scott has visibly tried to navigate the reefs, rocks and political dark waters of COVID-19. During that time, I have tried to avoid “armchair quarterbacking,” and have tried to remain somewhat neutral about his various strategies to “flatten the curve” and save lives, especially since our eldest daughter has been a front-line emergency room nurse.
Over the past months I have respectfully kept in mind Scott’s overriding impulse to “play it safe,” knowing that such a pandemic places a governor in a difficult place in being forced to balance the rights of the individual against the possibility for medical calamity on an epic scale. To understand that impulse, I think it’s important to mentally place ourselves in their position. Would we want to be forever remembered for the death of thousands of people? Probably not.
But Governor Phil Scott walked dangerously down an authoritarian plank during his press conference on Friday, Nov. 13. Looking a bit like a stern father, he made the following proclamation: “Multi-household gatherings, both inside and out, whether in public or private spaces, are prohibited.”
A more detailed release from the governor’s website offers the following draconian clamp-down: “Attendance at all public and private social gatherings, indoor and outdoor, including social gatherings incidental to ceremonies, holiday gatherings, parties and celebrations, shall be limited to participation with only members of a single household. Individuals who live alone may gather with members of their immediate family residing in a different household.”
Despite his obvious good intentions, Gov. Scott’s most recent move is not an advisory or a warning. It is an authoritarian overreach which cuts right to the core of bedrock constitutional rights.
Arguably the most important amendment in the Bill of Rights is the First Amendment: “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.”
Clearly, the rights to free speech and freedom of movement are primary human rights, even in a pandemic. To deny the free movement and free assembly of citizens would have almost certainly provoked scorn if not outright wrath from the framers of our Constitution, even if such abrogation of our rights was deemed to be in our own best interest. And this is as it should be, for if our constitutional rights can be conveniently set aside every time a perceived crisis emerges, it is easy to see how an authoritarian would eagerly cultivate such scenarios to accumulate power for themselves.
This is a bold line which must not be crossed. The government is not our parent, and we are not its children.
This truth was forever carved in the stone tablets of time by none other than Patrick Henry, who distilled this truth to its essence; an essence which still resonates among Americans today: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Aye, there’s the rub, and the very bulls-eye of the COVID debate: Is life so dear that we allow our leaders to wrap us in chains to preserve it, to use the force of law to attempt to deny us one of the most important rights of all — to gather with those we love?
I would respectfully point out that our governor’s hobby is auto racing, a high risk sport. Governor Scott is free to manage his own personal risk as he sees fit. And I reserve the right to do the same.
Sorry, Governor Scott, but my constitutional rights trump your paternal impulses. I will visit with my family on Thanksgiving, I will accept the risk, and I will thank God for those rights which allow us to gather and eat in peace and prosperity.