Questions of Belief and Authority


Here’s a telling observation:  Governor Gina Raimondo’s “Reopening RI” plan has a unique set of regulations for “faith-based organizations,” but not for entertainment venues like theaters or clubs.

The webs of the law can be complex and shifting, but under a straightforward interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, the governor’s plan simply can’t be constitutional.  She has created a special category of rules not based on the layout of a physical location or the practical use of a space, but on the religious nature of the activity.  Just in case anybody might miss this plain fact, the rules go even farther to give specific examples, such as “holy water fonts must be emptied.”

For moral and legal clarity, it’s always a worthwhile exercise to restate a thing in descriptive terms.  This is the government decreeing that religious services can only be conducted if certain “ceremonious materials” are discarded, implicitly stating that religious claims about those “materials” cannot be believed to be true.

This ought to be enragingly offensive to a free people, especially free religious people.  Just the notion that a government official would presume to recommend that “any religious scripture be projected electronically, provided via a disposable paper version, or carried in individually (personal version) rather than having any shared materials” should bother even non-believing Americans.  Statements like this cannot avoid judgment about the truth of the religion, and Governor Raimondo, who self-identifies as a Roman Catholic, cannot categorically write into regulation that the nature of holy scriptures is such that they can always be either projected, discarded, not shared, or sanitized.

My goodness!  The regulation states that “congregations that practice Communion could consider modifying or suspending this practice.”  This is the government stating that religious organizations should evaluate how much they really believe in what they say.  The unnecessary specificity of it ought to cause every person who believes he or she has authority independent of the government to stand up bristling.  This is the governor proving that she doesn’t believe the adults under her rule can think through something as simple as hygiene for themselves and apply it to their own circumstances.

I say this ought to be offensive to free religious people, but I’ve been shocked at how few expressions of offense there have been, including among religious leaders.

This week on Dust in the Light, I wrote about the unique attribute of COVID-19, that it forces us to make decisions and show our beliefs.  It isn’t so dramatically and universally fatal that we can only react to it, but rather, it gives us the space to assess its danger and weigh risks against other values.  In the essay, I apply that to the decision of my own Church to block access to its central sacrament, the Eucharist.  And I worry that we’re seeming to agree with the governor’s demonstrated belief that the spiritual world can be separated from the physical world.

At the end of the day, the Constitution is only a document.  It has no magic power, and it only really has the force of law if we continue to insist that it applies.