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We Must Not Allow the Government to Use Fear of COVID-19 to Trample Our Religious Liberties

Officials in seven San Francisco Bay Area counties have issued a shelter-in-place mandate affecting about 7 million people, including the city of San Francisco itself. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

For the last three years, we have repeatedly heard from the left how President Trump is going to take away all our rights, and create a dictatorial, authoritarian regime. Even before he was inaugurated, riots began around the country protesting him and the destruction he would cause… a great irony given that these demonstrations were truly destructive of property and rights.

But we now see what many have suspected: the real authoritarianism is coming from the left, manifested now in the latest “health order” in San Francisco that is mandating that people stay in their homes, and explicitly prohibiting them from attending their religious services and institutions.

On March 16, San Francisco mandated Health Order C19-07, prohibiting upon punishment of fine, imprisonment, or both any individual from leaving their home “with certain exceptions for essential activities or essential travel or to perform work for essential businesses and government agencies or perform essential infrastructure work.” This city order is in effect immediately, and in force through “April 7, 2020, or until it is extended, rescinded, superseded, or amended in writing by the Health Office,” This de facto means that if the city so chooses, this order confining people to their homes could last indefinitely.

While COVID-19 is clearly a concern, is it really a reason to lock down an entire city, confining everyone (except whom the city unilaterally determines is “essential”) to their homes? The authoritarian tones of this order become even more disturbing when a closer look is taken of this mandate, and we see what organizations are explicitly included in this lockdown order.

The order states: “10e: For the purposes of this Order, covered businesses include any for-profit, non-profit, or educational entities, regardless of the nature of the service, the function they perform, or its corporate or entity structure.” This means, by definition, all religious gatherings, synagogue and church services, and religious counseling are forbidden by law until at least April 7 and possibly even after.

While some religious obligations can be done individually or online, many others require the gathering of people. The Passover Seder, which this year is the evening of April 8, is a prime example of the necessity of people gathering together in worship. The Easter Sunday Mass, one of the primary rituals of the Catholic Church, involves physically accepting the Eucharist, and is scheduled this year on April 12. The weekly Mass and Shabbat reading of the Torah require people to personally experience the ritual.

But these religious obligations have now been prohibited by a city ordinance. Again, the true authoritarianism comes not from conservatives, but rather is coming from the farthest-left city in the country: San Francisco. A city that allows homeless people to defecate and drop drug needles on the streets, now confines people of faith to their homes, attempting to prohibit them from their spiritual practices and communities.

These prohibitions from San Francisco are being emulated in different ways throughout the nation, even postponing the mandated electoral process in states such as Ohio, Louisiana, and Georgia. Our rights as individuals and our spiritual obligations as well are being trampled through an embracing of fear.

It is this trampling of our spiritual rights (arguably a violation of the Establishment Clause, although it needs to be determined by religious rights attorneys) that is truly frightening: much more frightening than the disease or even the panic that has motivated people to empty grocery store shelves.

Religion has always been the strongest obstacle to authoritarianism. Whether in Bolshevik Russia or Communist Cuba, one of the first goals that must be accomplished in order to empower an authoritarian regime is the subjugation of religion. Because religion encourages a personal relationship with God, it weakens the strength of the regime. It places a higher power over the regime, and so the destruction of communal religious practices is of paramount importance to the political authority.

And it is why it is so incredibly important that all people of faith, especially the religious leadership of both clergy and laity, choose to peacefully protest this authoritarian order and continue to put faith in our religious practices through gathering together in prayer and ritual. Yes, we need to have Purell available in our synagogues and churches, and should stay six feet away from each other in the services. We need to be aware of the challenges of the disease, but never controlled by a fear that is personified in an authoritarian order that wants us to leave our religion behind.

As both a sign of our faith and a way of preventing further dictatorial authoritarianism that can come as a result of this order, we all need to continue to observe the rituals demanded of us by our faith traditions.

There is the story in the Talmud of a Rabbi teaching Judaism in a time when the Roman Empire had forbidden it. When asked why, the Rabbi replied with the parable of the fish who were being hunted in the stream, and the fox who tried to persuade them to come to dry land. The fish explained that in order to survive, the key was not to leave the stream that had always given them strength in order to go to a more dangerous environment of the land, but that the fish should stay in the stream which had always nourished it. The story concludes with the understanding that our religious teachings are “our stream,” and even more in times of trouble should we cling to our strengths, quoting the Book of Deuteronomy regarding studying and practicing religion, “It is your life and the lengthening of your days” (Deut. 30:20).

It is important from both a spiritual perspective as well as a way to truly combat authoritarianism that we do not allow our behavior to be determined by a governmental ordinance such as what has happened in San Francisco.

It is also important to remember and understand the social engineering concept of “Moral Panic” (Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panic). Cohen describes five stages to this panic, which ultimately result in social control such as the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Something is perceived as a threat to the interests of the community; the media magnify the threat in simplistic understandings; the media portrayal of the threat creates widespread public concern; the authorities respond to the perceived threat with new laws and policies; and there is ultimately a social change in the community, leading to “the reinforcement of the authority of those in charge.” This concept, which ultimately results in social engineering and a “new reality,” is clearly seen in the fears surrounding COVID-19, and all five steps can be seen in this newest mandate in San Francisco. According to this understanding, the step of governmental control as evidenced in the San Francisco order can, God forbid, be spread around the nation…creating an entirely different nation. A nation not built on the principles of our Founding Fathers and framers of the Constitution, but instead based on government control and authoritarianism.

One of the answers to actions like this San Francisco mandate needs to be people of faith retaining that faith. If someone is at risk, it is prudent (and necessary, according to Jewish law of “pikuach ha’nefesh”) to be conscious and utilize any of the online tools to strengthen their spiritual wellbeing. But in the same way that grocery stores are remaining open to provide for the body’s needs, houses of worship also must be physically available to provide for the spiritual needs. While this is true everywhere, nowhere right now is it more important than in San Francisco, which is consciously trying to hurt houses of worship and religious practitioners. Individuals must make responsible decisions about attending services, but we should never allow a government to determine our religious practice through governmental mandate. To do so would not only be a betrayal of our faith, but a surrender to further governmental authoritarianism.

Faith and fear cannot exist in the same place at the same time. We must be prudent, and at the same time always choose our spiritual well-being over fear. The words themselves describe the situation: do each of us choose to be fearful (“full of fear”) or faithful (“full of faith”)?

My prayer for all of us is that we choose to peacefully protest this authoritarian order of San Francisco by gathering together in prayer and service—and in so doing, keep the true values of this nation alive in the face of attempted authoritarianism.

Rabbi Michael Barclay is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village (www.NerSimcha.org), and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Lit. Press). He can be reached directly at [email protected]