WASHINGTON, D.C. - Several times now, I have praised the peaceful demonstrations protesting racial injustice and the killings of black Americans. I am grateful that after several harrowing days of looting and riots, law enforcement restored order and helped these peaceful protests be heard.
Notwithstanding the far-left calls to disband the police altogether, I believe most Americans are ready to consider how the memories of black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor can move us to continue combating residual racism.
Today, I need to discuss a different pressing problem that concerns Americans’ constitutional rights.
It is becoming clear to many Americans, including many who appreciate and applaud the recent protests, that our national life during this pandemic has slid toward a double standard.
For weeks, state and local leaders put normal American life totally on ice and asked citizens to prioritize fighting the virus.
For weeks, the mainstream media heaped scorn on any small citizen protest, outdoor gathering, or even the suggestion that other important values might require a reappraisal of certain restrictions.
The American people did their part. They made necessary sacrifices that clearly helped the country and they’re ready to continue doing their part as our re-opening carefully proceeds.
But now, many Americans feel they’ve just seen those fastidious regulations and that puritanical zeal disappear in an instant because a new cause has emerged that powerful people agree with.
A month ago, small protest demonstrations were widely condemned as reckless and selfish. Now, massive rallies that fill entire cities are not just praised, but in fact, are called especially brave because of the exact same health risks that brought condemnation when the cause was different.
People just spent the spring watching their small businesses dissolve, or canceling weddings, or missing religious observances for the longest spells in their lives, or missing the last days of a loved one’s life and then missing the funeral. Never were the American people told about any exemption for things they felt strongly about.
I have no criticism for the millions of Americans who have peacefully demonstrated in recent days. Their cause is beyond righteous. It is the inconsistency from leaders that has been baffling.
The same governor of Michigan who argued that letting people carefully shop for vegetable seeds would be too dangerous during the pandemic now poses for photographs with groups of protestors.
Here in the District of Columbia, the Mayor celebrates massive street protests. She joins them herself. But, on her command, churches and houses of worship remain shut. I believe even the largest church buildings in the District are still subject to the 10-person limit for things the Mayor deems inessential.
The rights of free speech, free assembly, and the free exercise of religion are all First Amendment rights. They have the same constitutional pedigree. But apparently while protests are now permissible, prayer is still too dangerous. Politicians are now picking and choosing within the First Amendment itself.
Last week, one county in California’s Bay Area seriously attempted to issue guidance that allowed protests of 100 people but still capped all other social gatherings at 12 people and banned outdoor religious gatherings altogether.
Figure that one out.
These governments are acting like the coronavirus discriminates based on the content of people’s speech. But alas, it’s only the leaders themselves who are doing that.
It is now impossible to avoid the conclusion that local and state leaders are using their power to encourage constitutionally-protected conduct which they personally appreciate, while continuing to ban constitutionally-protected conduct which they personally feel is less important.
In New York City, Mayor de Blasio makes no effort to hide this subjectivity. At one point, he recounted our nation’s history with racism, compared that to, quote, a “devout religious person who wants to go back to religious services,” and concluded, quote, “Sorry, that is not the same question.”
The American people’s constitutional liberties do not turn on a mayor’s intuitions.
Politicians do not get to play red-light, green-light within the First Amendment.
The Bill of Rights is not some a-la-carte menu that leaders may sample as they please. It is hard to see any rational set of rules by which mass protests should continue to be applauded but small, careful religious services should continue to be banned.
These prominent Democrats are free to let social protest outrank religion in their own consciences, if they choose. But they do not get to impose their ranking on everyone else. That is precisely the point of the freedom of conscience. That is precisely the point of the First Amendment.
Weeks ago, citizens sued the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky when he tried to ban drive-in Easter services while imposing no restrictions on the parking lots of secular businesses.
A brilliant district judge had to remind him and the whole country that in America, faith can never be shoved into second class.
It seems at least a few local leaders still need to learn that lesson. I hope they learn it soon.
The American people’s response to the coronavirus was courageous and patriotic. On the advice of experts, our nation sacrificed a great deal to protect our medical system.
Politicians must not repay that sacrifice with constitutionally dubious double standards.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made these remarks on the Senate floor on Tuesday.