In recent days President Donald Trump called on state governors to declare church, synagogue, mosque and other gatherings by religious groups “essential services.” Trump has been reported to have “angrily” demanded that governors make such declarations while also claiming publicly that he has the constitutional power to override them if they refuse to do so. As a pastor and lawyer who has studied, practiced, taught and adjudicated cases involving constitutional law – including the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution – I refute Trump’s position.
I have been a licensed lawyer since 1979. I have been an ordained minister in the religion of Jesus since 1988. I taught constitutional law (at the law school and undergraduate levels) and have engaged in litigation involving the First Amendment and religious liberty.
So, I know that no religious group needs a declaration from Trump or any other governmental official declaring them to be “essential.” That is true for any religion. I don’t need Trump’s permission to hold services for New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, the congregation I have served as pastor since 2009.
“Simply put, Trump’s demand is as irrelevant to our congregation as it would be if he demanded that governors declare sunlight and air to be ‘essential.’”
New Millennium Church has not failed to worship during the weeks we have ceased to meet in our sanctuary. We, like other faithful people, have worshiped, prayed and sung and heard songs of faith. We have read our sacred texts and proclaimed the truths of our faith through sermons. We have welcomed one another online, including those who had not encountered us before the coronavirus pandemic. We have pointed people to shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines and other helpful information.
We have done all these things, as well as the intangible yet essential acts of making individual contact with each other and encouraging one another, since we suspended gathering on our campus in early March.
We did not suspend in-person worship because Trump or any other governmental official said we should. We suspended our in-person gatherings and continue to worship and serve God and our neighbors from remote locations because we love God and our neighbors more than we love money. We love God and our neighbors more than we love religious routines. We love God and our neighbors more than we love the building space where we sang, prayed, preached, studied and encouraged and mentored each other before the coronavirus pandemic happened.
No governmental official determines whether, when, where or how we express our faith. New Millennium Church is governed and guided by our sense of Divine love, truth, justice, peace and hope. President Trump, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. are not the beings from whom we claim the right to moral, spiritual, religious and social freedom. As a black person reared in the Baptist tradition, I come from people who had to “steal away” to worship God. Slaveowners could not prevent my ancestors from worshiping God and caring for others. And no politician in the current version of U.S. slavocracy will do so – or, in this instance, determine when or how we will reconvene physically to worship God.
Simply put, Trump’s demand is as irrelevant to our congregation as it would be if he demanded that governors declare sunlight and air to be “essential.”
Throughout his adult life, Trump has shown no sincere concern about religious faith or the principles that faithful people hold dear. He has openly been dishonest in personal, commercial and official conduct. He has gleefully engaged in violence against vulnerable men, women and children and boasted that his celebrity, gender, whiteness and wealth allow him to do so. In areas of personal, social, religious, commercial and civic faithfulness, Trump is a charlatan.
More than 100,000 Americans from all walks of life have become sickened and died due to COVID-19 causes. Recent studies suggest that a third or more of those deaths could have been prevented had President Trump and other politicians acted even one or two weeks earlier to suspend and curtail commercial and social interactions as urged by public health experts from whom Trump received honest and reliable counsel about the transmissibility and lethality of the novel coronavirus.
“No governmental official determines whether, when, where or how we express our faith.”
As the nation braces for another surge in the number of infected persons, Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic has deservedly come under harsh criticism. Pollsters report that a growing number of likely voters disapprove of his political leadership and personal character.
Perhaps those voters also realize that Trump is a charlatan concerning religious freedom. Perhaps they know that Trump doesn’t care about their faith, their families, their neighborhoods or their futures. Voters of all faiths and no faith cannot create a COVID-19 vaccine by vote. But as more people become infected, sick, require treatment and die because of COVID-19, perhaps voters will toss the charlatan named Donald Trump out of office because, among other things, he is grossly reckless about their health and safety even as he professes to care about their religious freedom.
Bill Leonard | Mr. President, worship is an essential part of my life, but not an essential part of my death
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