Wednesday, July 29, 2020


There is a firestorm over churches (and holy places in general) in California, and it isn’t clear if the fire can be put out.

In California, the governor and the mayor of Los Angeles have threatened to cut off power and water to churches that don’t obey California’s recent coronavirus enforcement order for them all to be shut down. In California, churches and other holy places are regarded as non-essential services.

Because these are still threats by the governor and mayor, it isn’t clear if they will be carried out.  

There are serious consequences to shutting off power to religious institutions.  

To begin with, if you shut down power, security protection systems, even if they have back-up batteries for emergencies, will fail. This means that fire alarms won’t work, burglar alarms won’t work, indoor and outdoor lighting will turn off, air conditioning and heating systems, including ventilation, will stop functioning. Sensors and cameras will stop operating. Buildings will become exceedingly dangerous and vulnerable.

Cutting off water creates a sanitation health problem for any building because toilets and sinks won’t function.

Are the threats by the governor and mayor excessive? Are they reckless?

Right now we are living through an epidemic of attacks on churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. Many religious sites have been hit by burglaries and vandalism. Churches, synagogues and mosques have been set on fire. And far too many of the attacks are meant to demonstrate hatred of religion by destroying religious artifacts, Torah scrolls, prayer books and other faith symbols. Statues of Jesus and Mary have been desecrated, damaged, destroyed and burned.

No religion has been spared in attacks on religious sites.  

Arson is growing around the country, including California. The 249-year-old San Gabriel Mission was mostly destroyed by fire on July 11th. The fire was not an accident. Fox News reported on July 13 that “A slew of Catholic churches from Florida to California were burned and vandalized over the weekend as police continue to investigate whether or not they are connected to protests targeting symbols and statues.”

Shutting down power makes it easier than ever to attack religious places and get away with it. Social isolation has only made things worse, not better. The reason is plain to see: People who are locked up, with no sports activities, no shops, no bars, no restaurants and no social gatherings. Communities are reaching the boiling point. While this alone can’t explain the viciousness of various protests around the country, some by violent anarchists and revolutionaries, social isolation certainly has fueled the malaise.  

Religious gatherings are ways for the community to deal with the tensions of everyday life and to address both sad and happy life-cycle events. But today there are no real weddings, confirmations, bar mitzvahs, holiday observances or even proper burials under social lockdown conditions. Virtual funerals cause as much grief as they aim to mitigate.

It is in this context that the threat to shut down churches, cut off their water and power if they don’t obey, represents a rising crisis in California, now made worse in fact by a reckless and unexplained recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled that a Nevada church must obey a 50-person limit. The Supreme Court split 5-4, but the majority simply made a ruling and offered no explanation for their action, a shameless way to handle an ultra-sensitive issue. The California situation actually is worse, because the government is not asking for limitations on church attendance. California is demanding a complete shutdown of all religious places.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. It also guarantees the right to assembly. But officials in California, like many other officials across the United States, are not concerned about the U.S. Constitution. 

In a conversation with Fox News correspondent Tucker Carlson, Phil Murphy, the governor of New Jersey, said back in April he wasn’t thinking of the Constitution. Mr. Carlson asked, “By what authority did you nullify the Bill of Rights in issuing this order? How do you have the power to do that?” “That’s above my pay grade, Tucker,” Mr. Murphy replied. “I wasn’t thinking of the Bill of Rights when we did this.”

Does the state have the right to close down churches, synagogues or mosques that don’t obey? That issue already came to a head in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened to not only shut down but to “close” synagogues permanently that didn’t obey his orders.

So far, the challenges to coronavirus restrictions have been based on the argument that churches are being treated unfairly and unequally. What has yet to be tested is whether the state can forcibly shut down a church, synagogue or mosque either by use of police power or by other coercive means such as shutting down power and water. 

As PJ Media reported on July 23, one church in California, the Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, is not closing down and is not imposing any restrictions on worshippers. Recent photos on Twitter show that the church is packed despite the COVID-19 threat, suggesting that at least in some parts of the United States people are willing to take their chances with the virus to fulfill their spiritual needs.

Of course the church in Sun Valley is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Will the California authorities try and close it down? Will they shut off water and power? Will the cops be ordered to storm the facility? Will there be another constitutional challenge? Will the Supreme Court agree it is constitutional to completely close down holy places?

The firestorm has started, although it is still too early to tell how hard and hot the winds will blow.

• Stephen Bryen is the author of the new book “Security for Holy Places” (Morgan James Publishers).

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