For weeks the media in the US has focused its attention on Washington DC and the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis. The daily press briefing with President Trump and members of his coronavirus Task Force has become “must watch” television for millions of Americans. But as natural as it might be to focus attention on actions of the federal government, in America’s system of federalism, where the national constitution reserves power to the states except where specifically granted to the federal government, the decisions to quarantine people or allow people to recreate and open their economies is up to the individual states. At present, some 20 states are in varying stages of allowing people to return to work and are beginning to open up their economies.
The states have handled the crisis very differently. Admittedly we find ourselves in an unprecedented situation, requiring state governors to balance the dictates of the constitution against concerns for protecting the public health. Some, like Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, have handled this balancing very well, explicitly allowing religious services to continue from the beginning. The free exercise of religion is a guaranteed constitutional right, not subject to the dictates of states or municipalities. Unfortunately, many governors including California Governor Gavin Newsom, have decreed that attending a religious service is not an “essential activity” and thus has banned Californians from leaving their homes to attend church services. The state is being sued over their position.
The International Organization for the Family (IOF) is concerned about how politicians are using the crisis to limit the rights of citizens, including imposing limitations on families to pray, celebrate, recreate and gather. Indeed, the actions of America’s governors provide an object lesson in the old maxim that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We are witnessing a daily litany of examples of politicians exercising power in ways that defy rational explanation other than, “because we said so.”
Take Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer as an example. Countless Michigan families own seasonal vacation camps, cabins and cottages in rural parts of the state. Whitmer has banned travel by Michiganders to these vacation homes, but allows people from outside Michigan to travel freely to and from their seasonal vacation homes inside the state. Michigan is famous for its outdoor activities, including fishing. Yet Whitmer has prohibited use of motorized fishing boats, although she permits fishing from kayaks, canoes and sailboats. Holding a family gathering to celebrate a child’s birthday is prohibited, but abortion providers like Planned Parenthood are considered essential. Shoppers at stores like Walmart are prohibited from purchasing “non-essential” items even though they may shop for other items deemed “essential” at the same store. She’s shut down the landscaping industry and is prohibiting residents from purchasing plant seeds and seedlings to plant home gardens. But people can still purchase lottery tickets. To put a fine point on her authoritarian and autocratic decrees, those who violate her orders can be fined $1,000. The state encourages citizens to rat out their neighbors who violate her orders.
Perhaps the most troubling political decree issued as a result of the coronavirus crisis came this week out of the state of New York, where the political appointees on the state Board of Elections decreed that the Democratic Presidential Primary would be cancelled. They called it a “beauty contest” that cannot be allowed to occur because allowing people to exercise their constitutional right to vote might spread the virus. Apparently state politicians, not voters, will decide who will represent them in the national presidential election.
We are also concerned about the rank media bias that has infected coverage of the coronavirus crisis. In Georgia, Republican Governor Brian Kemp has earned the media’s enmity for his decision to be reopen businesses in his state, ridiculing him for including tattoo parlors in his reopen order. Yet in Colorado, Democrat Governor Jared Polis has issued a very similar set of orders to reopen his state, specifically including tattoo parlors. No reporters or media outlets have targeted Polis for criticism.
The exercise of political power must always – always – be constrained by inviolate principles enshrined in foundational governing documents. One such obvious example is the United States constitution. Another example on an international scale is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which seeks to preserve, protect, and promote the family as society’s “natural and fundamental” unit. The Declaration provides that “[t]he family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” This foundational principle is also recognized in over 100 national constitutions.
A popular country song declares that every storm runs out of rain. At some point, hopefully soon, COVID-19 will run its course and no longer pose a threat to our health, economy or way of life. Let us hope – no, more than hope, resolve – that its lasting effects will not include damage to our fundamental rights, or undercut the primacy of the family as providing the foundation for all civilizations.