Politicians, police and civil servants in the U.S. are using the COVID-19 pandemic to curtail everything from gun and abortion rights to freedom of religion, assembly and speech.
U.S. public servants are on a COVID-19-fueled power trip, taking a meat cleaver to Americans’ civil liberties with more impunity than at any time since WWII. Under the banner of public safety, state and local officials have issued emergency decrees that infringe on rights and freedoms that most of us have, until now, taken for granted.
Freedom of speech, assembly and religion, as well as abortion, gun and privacy rights have all come under attack from politicians and police officers, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, government officials and the governed, alike.
Fox News legal analyst and noted libertarian, Andrew Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge, recently described this phenomenon as “a government of fear,” and truly, the fear is real, as the novel coronavirus racks up a worldwide death toll with no end in sight.
“Of what value is a constitutional guarantee if it can be violated when people get sick?” Napolitano writes. “If it can, it is not a guarantee; it is a fraud. Stated differently, a constitutional guarantee is only as valuable and reliable as is the fidelity to the Constitution of those in whose hands we have reposed it for safekeeping.”
In an attempt to halt the spread of COVID-19, states, cities and counties have issued sweeping stay-at-home orders, restricting “non-essential” business and travel in an attempt to “flatten the curve” of infection and ease the burden on our healthcare system.
But in doing so, public servants are abusing this authority in myriad ways, sometimes paternalistically, sometimes for ideological reasons, sometimes out of what Napolitano, quoting St. Augustine, refers to as “libido dominandi — the lust to dominate.”
Here follows a round-up of some of the more egregious examples of Constitutional violations across the country.
Elected officials in several conservative states are exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to label abortion procedures as being medically unnecessary, a move they claim is needed to preserve scarce medical resources during a health care emergency. Abortion-rights groups have cried foul, suing in federal courts across the nation, attempting to block these executive abortion bans, with mixed results so far.
The Washington Post reports that federal judges in Ohio and Alabama have temporarily halted abortion bans in those states, and similar emergency restrictions are being challenged in Iowa, Oklahoma and elsewhere.
The stakes seem highest in Texas, where on March 22 Gov. Greg Abbott issued a prohibition on all but immediately necessary medical procedures. State Attorney General Ken Paxton subsequently interpreted the order to apply to “any type of abortion that is not medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother,” warning that “[f]ailure to comply with an executive order issued by the governor related to the COVID-19 disaster can result in penalties of up to $1,000 or 180 days of jail time.”
Planned Parenthood and various abortion providers sued in federal court, winning a temporary restraining order from U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel, who wrote that Abbott’s executive order, as interpreted by Paxton, “violates the plaintiffs’ patients’ Fourteenth Amendment rights, which derive from the Bill of Rights, by effectively banning all abortions before viability.”
Yeakel, who was nominated to the bench by George W. Bush, foresaw the likelihood that the case would reach the highest court in the land, writing that the U.S. Supreme Court had “spoken clearly” that “there can be no outright ban on such a procedure” and that, “This court will not speculate on whether the Supreme Court included a silent `except-in-a-national-emergency clause’ in its previous writings on the issue.”
Paxton appealed, and a panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Yeakel’s order in a 2-1 decision, pending further deliberation by the panel.
Meanwhile, NPR reports that women have been denied abortions in Texas and Oklahoma because of these emergency decrees, and a recent study by the pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute indicates that the COVID-19 abortion bans will exponentially increase the drive times of women seeking abortion procedures or medications — in the case of Texas, “from 12 miles to 243 miles (or 1,925% longer).”
The spread of the novel coronavirus has increased the public’s fever for the purchase of firearms, with many Americans doubting the ability of law enforcement to protect them should the U.S. turn into some real-life version of The Purge or Escape from New York.
According to the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legal Action, the NRA’s legal arm, most states issuing emergency decrees have deemed gun shops, along with liquor and grocery stores, to be providers of “essential services,” allowing gun retailers to remain open.
Still, a number of states, counties and municipalities have moved to block the sale of firearms during the pandemic, including New Mexico, Massachusetts, Washington state, New York and parts of California.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, both Democrats, initially shut down gun sales in their states, only to later reverse course.
Church vs. coronavirus: California pastor says stay-at-home orders violate freedom of religion https://t.co/KbOJIFrCHH
— KTVU (@KTVU) April 2, 2020
Murphy was sued by Second Amendment groups after issuing his March 21 executive order, which did not recognize gun stores as essential. The governor did a one-eighty after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, bowing to pressure from the NRA and other gun rights organizations, issued a statement labeling gun dealers as “critical infrastructure.”
Murphy followed suit, allowing gun sales by appointment, according to Politico. “It wouldn’t have been my definition, but that’s the definition at the federal level,” he said of the new designation.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf came under withering criticism from justices on the state’s Supreme Court after the court denied a challenge to his order on Constitutional grounds.
A dissent penned by Justice David Wecht called the governor’s decree regarding gun stores as “non-life sustaining” to be “an absolute and indefinite prohibition upon the acquisition of firearms by the citizens of this commonwealth — a result in clear tension with the Second Amendment.”
As a result, Wolf’s office reworded the governor’s order to allow for limited, in-person sales of firearms by dealers.
On April 2, the NRA announced that it was suing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo over his COVID-19 ban on gun sales. The NRA has also filed suit in California on similar grounds, though Gov. Gavin Newsom has left it up to individual counties and sheriffs to decide whether or not to deem gun sales “essential.”
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo canceled a controversial order requiring anyone coming from N.Y. to self-quarantine for 14 days.
She expanded the requirement to everyone visiting Rhode Island from out of state.https://t.co/SyygwyDQRN
— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) March 29, 2020
Bay Area counties have shuttered gun stores in response to the pandemic, while in Los Angeles County, the sheriff there initially regarded gun shops as non-essential, then flip-flopped after DHS issued new guidelines.
Interestingly, in both Washington state and Massachusetts, some gun shops have openly defied gubernatorial decrees putting them out of business. And in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has so far withstood pressure from Democrats in the state to end gun sales.
That irascible theist, Thomas Jefferson, once called freedom of religion “the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights.” But that right, as enshrined in the First Amendment, has been taking heavy fire from the states during the pandemic, with political leaders and police clamping down on churches and ministers who insist on communal worship.
The evangelical Christian news site, ChristianPost.com, recently cited a “private test poll of 226 pastors” by Barna Research, which found that 67 percent of pastors had closed their churches in light of the pandemic, while a stubborn minority of five percent were determined to keep their doors open.
"We don't get our rights to worship freely from the government we get those from God," said the Rev. Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "We'd rather obey God than man." https://t.co/7lnoR7LqjW
— CNN (@CNN) April 6, 2020
That resolute minority has shown a willingness to be defiant in the face of executive orders limiting gatherings of any significant size. On March 30, sheriff’s deputies arrested Tampa megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne for holding Sunday services despite an emergency ban on gatherings of more than 10 persons. Browne faces misdemeanor charges of violating the order and unlawful assembly and has pleaded not guilty.
(Note: Since Browne’s arrest, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has issued state orders making religious gatherings “essential” and blocking local governments from preventing churches and synagogues from holding services.)
In a similar incident earlier in March, police issued a summons to Rev. Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for holding services in defiance of an emergency order issued by Gov. John Bel Edwards. Unrepentant, Spell led a congregation of 1,220 on Palm Sunday, one of many religious services that continued as normal during the Christian holy day, which marks the beginning of Easter Week.
From California to New York, defiant churches are being harassed for engaging in Constitutionally protected activity. According to Reuters, in Lodi, California, police barged in on a small evangelical gathering at Cross Culture Christian Center to warn congregants they were in violation of health emergency orders, later posting a “Notice of Public Nuisance” on the center’s entrance.
The church’s attorney, Dean Broyles, vowed that the church would not obey the dictates.
“The virus does not suspend our constitutional rights, the right to assemble, freedom of religion and freedom of speech,” he told Reuters.
And on March 29, New York City’ hapless chief executive, Mayor Bill de Blasio, explained that churches found to be in violation of the city’s shelter-in-place order could be permanently closed.
De Blasio: churches and synagogues that hold worship services may be closed permanently pic.twitter.com/kdUsdbP2YO
— Matthew Schmitz (@matthewschmitz) March 29, 2020
“Everyone has been instructed that if they see worship services going on, they will go to the officials of that congregation, inform them they need to stop the services and disperse,” de Blasio said in a Televised address. “If that does not happen, they will take official action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”
ASSEMBLY, SPEECH, PRIVACY, ET AL.
Equally egregious have been the widespread crackdowns on individual liberties, from New York cops breaking up neighborhood basketball games to San Francisco police issuing citations to non-compliant businesses and individuals.
In Rhode Island, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo went full Mussolini, first ordering state cops to pull over cars with New York plates to advise occupants of a mandatory 14-day quarantine. When New York Gov. Cuomo threatened to sue, Raimondo took her power grab one step further and extended the unconstitutional stops to all out-of-state plates.
— Golf Digest (@GolfDigest) April 3, 2020
Living up to her state’s sobriquet, “The Plantation State,” Raimondo also ordered house-to-house searches in coastal areas for runaway Gothamites fleeing the Big Virus. In a related incident, three Massachusetts men were arrested for playing golf on a Little Rhody course in violation of emergency rules.
The border town of Laredo, Texas may have outdone even Raimondo by requiring the wearing of masks in public places and threatening those who don’t with a $1,000 fine.
“I’d rather bury them in debt than bury them in a coffin,” Laredo city councilman George Algelt said of the new, COVID-19-inspired rule, according to The Washington Post.
Freedom of speech has also been imperiled in some states, with some local cop shops threatening to arrest people for spreading disinformation about the virus. Whistleblowers in government and private industry have experienced retaliation, and online platforms have engaged in censorship of dissenting views.
But so far, the U.S. has not seen the sort of ham-fisted government censorship of the press that is taking place in other countries due to the virus panic.
Free enterprise has been less fortunate than free speech, however. The New York Times reports an increase in lawsuits challenging capricious state closures of supposedly “non-essential” businesses, such as golf-courses, restaurants, bars and others.
“Those lawsuits and one in Arizona are rooted in the Fifth Amendment, which requires due process and guarantees compensation for property seized by the government,” the article states.
A couple of weeks back, the Department of Justice floated a plan to rollback the rights of defendants during national emergency, suspending habeas corpus in the process. The proposed DOJ legislation seems DOA for now, but delays nationwide of grand juries, trials, bankruptcy proceedings and court hearings are stymying due process rights indefinitely.
As the lockdowns of 2020 were extended from spring to summer and then to early fall, a process of normalization began to take hold, writes Bret Stephens 5 years from now. https://t.co/sDsh8LHA3E
— New York Times Opinion (@nytopinion) April 4, 2020
And if that’s not enough to spur on dystopian fears of an Orwellian police state, Google has been using its bottomless trove of user data to track individuals’ compliance with government-mandated social distancing orders in 131 countries.
Google claims the information has been anonymized and aggregated, thus shielding the identities of individual users. But TechCrunch recently noted the criticism of some privacy experts, who warn, “Large-scale collection of personal data can quickly lead to mass surveillance.”
Indeed, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens recently penned a column titled “COVID-19: A Look Back from 2025,” in which he hopped in his time machine and warned that the pandemic “provided a ready-made excuse for democratic governments around the world” to expand their powers and curtail the rights of individuals.
He explains from his imaginary perch five years in the future that these tactics “met with comparatively little resistance,” in part because “the concerns of civil libertarians paled next to calls to ‘flatten the curve.'”
What was proposed as “temporary” soon became the status quo.
Stephens reduced his message in a bottle from 2025 to this succinct formula for readers in the present, one that neatly sums up the very concerns that Judge Napolitano elucidated above:
“Disease facilitates the spread of authoritarianism.”