Donald Trump’s allies are turning the battle against coronavirus into a culture war by claiming that social-distancing rules are a government attack on Christianity.
The Department of Justice announced Attorney General William Barr is poised to sue states that limit the ability of parishioners to pray together in the midst of this pandemic. A number of Republican governors, including Florida’s Ron DeSantis, have exempted religious services from some or all of their states’ social-distancing rules.
And a judge recently appointed to the federal bench, who Trump may be grooming for a Supreme Court nomination, is now wildly attacking social-distancing rules as a supposedly grievous “threat” to Christian “believers.”
Justin Walker, a 38-year-old former law clerk to Brett Kavanaugh, is among the crop of young, extremely conservative lawyers Trump has installed on the federal bench. While the American Bar Association rated Walker “not qualified,” because he had less than 12 years of experience as a practicing lawyer, that did not prevent GOP senators from confirming him last year. On March 13, Mitch McConnell shut down the Senate in the midst of negotiations for the first coronavirus-relief bill and traveled back to Kentucky to attend a celebration of Walker’s investiture as a federal judge; Kavanaugh presided over the event. Then, this month, Trump nominated Walker to serve on the D.C. Circuit, the appellate court on which Kavanaugh previously sat, and a frequent source of Supreme Court nominees.
Walker repaid that faith in his career last week, in a case brought by the On Fire Christian Center against the City of Louisville and its mayor, by ruling that the church should be permitted to conduct a drive-in service, in violation of the city’s stay-at-home order.
The case was actually much ado about nothing, because, as Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern reported, Louisville had no intention of enforcing its order against the church. Rather, the police were merely being instructed to hand out information about health risks to attending parishioners and to record license-plate numbers to perform contact-tracing in the event that any attendees later became sick.
But Walker, who did not provide the city with an opportunity to provide its side of the case, had little interest in the facts. Rather, he wanted to make a very loud statement, which he did in his opinion, which opened with a declaration that “On Holy Thursday, an American Mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter.”
What followed was an extraordinarily tendentious screed in which Walker described the city’s public-health regulations as evocative of a dystopian novel. The judge compared Louisville’s mayor to the English persecutors of the Pilgrims, as well as to Southern plantation owners who “flogged slaves for attending prayer meetings.” Walker also managed to bring abortion and birth control into the case, decrying “government” efforts to “force religious business owners to buy pharmaceuticals they consider abortion inducing” and “conscript[ing] nuns to provide birth control.”
The relevance of these matters to Louisville’s efforts to prevent citizens from infecting themselves and others with a deadly virus was, to say the least, unclear; but the references served Walker’s apparent goal of getting the juices of right-wing religious activists flowing. Walker closed his opinion by suggesting he was vindicating the rights of “believers” to celebrate the passion that followed the “state-sponsored murder of God’s only son”; the implication that the city’s sponsorship of social-distancing rules worked a similar kind of evil was clear.
McConnell praised Walker’s decision, and Rand Paul, Kentucky’s supposedly libertarian junior senator, declaimed: “Thank God for a judge who understands the First Amendment prevents the government from prohibiting the free government exercise of religion.”
Barr, meantime, says that the DOJ will be keeping a “careful eye” on rules that affect religious observance. This week, a Justice spokesperson tweeted that “AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services” and said that the nation should “Expect action from DOJ next week!” It appears that the federal government may soon be going to court to challenge states’ implementation of the very social-distancing guidelines that the president has urged them to adopt, and doing so on the grounds that those government actions amount to illegal attacks on Christian believers.
Of course, Trump himself is now openly scheming to undermine his own social-distancing guidance. Today, he declared that he has the power to force states to toss out their social-distancing rules entirely and “open up.” In fact, Trump has absolutely no control over such state and local laws, unless they impinge on a federal law or constitutional right. Accordingly, it seems distinctly possible that Trump himself will begin to claim that social-distancing rules are attacks on Christianity as loudly and recklessly as Judge Walker.
A president who cared about public health would think twice about fanning the flames of cultural and religious conflict in the midst of an historic health emergency. But our president is Donald Trump, a man who can hardly be expected to give up an opportunity to pander to one of his key electoral constituencies, even if it kills them.