The Supreme Court and Religious Gatherings in a Deadly Pandemic

Dear Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States,

Religious freedom does not include the freedom to harm or kill others through super-spreader events in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. By exempting religious communities from restrictions on public gatherings during a public health emergency, you are letting your religious ideologies get in the way of your constitutional duties.

Limiting gatherings of all kinds during a public health emergency does not violate the free excercise clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States as it is not singling out religious communities for disparate treatment, but rather it is a science-based policy that applies to the entire human community. The five justices who decided to exempt religious communities from restrictions on public gatherings have shown that your allegiance to your religious ideologies is stronger than your allegiance to the health and safety of all Americans.

If persons want to harm themselves or be involved in behavior that risks their own health or life for religious reasons, then the free exercise clause could be interpreted in such a way as to allow them to do so. If persons want to refuse medical treatment for a noncommunicable disease or other noncommunicable ailment for religious reasons, then the free exercise clause could be interpreted as allowing them to do so. The free exercise of religion allows persons to freely practice their religion in ways that do not create harm to others.

Meeting in large groups in ways that do not follow public health protocols during what is becoming the most deadly pandemic in a century is not a right protected by our constitution. Given what we know about COVID-19, gathering in such a way is knowingly and willingly not only putting the participants in the religious gatherings at risk but also every other person with whom they come into contact. We commonly make laws that protect each other from activities that bring unnecessary harm or even death to persons within our communities, and persons in religious communities are not exempt from these laws.

By exempting religious communities from restrictions on gatherings in a deadly pandemic, five members of the Supreme Court of the United States have allowed their religious ideologies to make the Supreme Court of the United States an enabler of gatherings of persons who are knowingly and willingly acting in ways that are bringing grave harm to our communities, and thus these justices are making the Supreme Court of the United States an accomplice to the harm and death caused by these gatherings – and that is, in most rational societies, a crime.

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Unelected Georgia Senator Loeffler Criticizes Rev. Warnock for Preaching the Gospel

White Christian Nationalists have been kneeling at the altar of the idol of militarism for many decades, which is why a White Christian Nationalist like unelected Georgia U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler has decided to make criticizing Rev. Raphael Warnock’s critique of the idolatry of militarism one of her main election strategies. It should also be noted that Martin Luther King Jr. was relentlessly attacked by White Christian Nationalists for his denouncement of the evil of militarism in the 1960s.

Listen to these words from King’s 1967 book, Where do We Go from Here: Chaos of Community?: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered”

King goes on to say, “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.’”

When Rev. Warnock said “you cannot serve God and the military,” he was not saying one cannot serve in the military; he was rejecting the idolatry of militarism that has been a problem among American Christians, especially among White Christian Nationalists, for far too long. If you profess to be a Christian, you cannot serve the military as your ultimate concern – you cannot serve the military like you serve God.

Before Christianity was co-opted by empire, early followers of Jesus were clear about this distinction. They knew they were serving God and not Caesar. They knew they were serving God and not mammon. Early Christians were quite clear that their ultimate service was to God, and Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as being quite clear about this in his teachngs: “You cannot serve both God and Mammon” Jesus says. And when Jesus says “render under to God what is God’s and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” it is quite clear that Caesar is not due anything close to what God is due.

Unfortunately, many media outlets sadly have fallen into the propaganda trap that White Christian Nationalists like unelected Senator Loeffler have laid. By putting only the excerpt “you cannot serve God and the military” from Rev. Warnock’s sermon in many of their headlines, the casual reader, and especially other White Christian Nationalists, will likely jump to conclusions about Warnock’s criticisms of militarism that are not warranted. This is how propaganda works.

The reality is that Rev. Warnock is in a long line of followers of Jesus, going all the way back to the Jesus of the Gospels himself, who recognize that to have faith in God and follow the way of Jesus is to serve the way of God as the only true ultimate in one’s life and to live out this service of God through acts of love and justice in the world – something that the idolatry of militarism fails miserably to do. A more accurate headline for what appointed Senator Loeffler is doing might well read “Senator Loeffler Criticizes Rev. Warnock for Preaching the Gospel.”

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Baby Killers?

Followers of the Christian Right seem to be thoroughly convinced that any person who is against making abortion illegal is a “baby killer.” This is the main issue that they use to justify supporting an unrepentant, narcissistic, adulterous, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, authoritarian bully who denies asylum to victims of war crimes, who rips children away from their parents to deter immigrants and asylum seekers, who has failed miserably to protect the American people from a deadly pandemic, and who threatens the stability of our republic by crying election fraud without a shred of evidence.

Setting aside an argument over the definition of personhood, let’s look exactly at what persons who self identify as “pro-life” are calling for. Those who want to make abortion illegal fall roughly into two categories: 1) persons who think all abortions should be illegal except in the case of rape, incest, or the health of the mother (some who argue for exceptions may not want to allow all three of these exceptions); and 2) persons who think all abortions should be illegal – full stop with no exceptions.

The “pro-life” persons in the first category often do not fully think through the implications of making all abortions illegal except in the case of incest, rape, or the health of the mother. First, would a victim of incest have to prove that they were a victim of incest? Does this mean they have to bring in the perpetrator in their families for testing? Will they have to bring official charges against a family member and have the matter settled in a court of law in order to have an abortion procedure? How long will this legal process take? What happens if the process takes so long that the pregnancy goes deep into the second or even into the third trimester? Will the victim of incest simply have to give birth to the child if the legal process takes too long?

In the case of a rape, what is the burden of proof that the victim of rape must show before she is granted access to an abortion procedure? Does the rapist have to be convicted in a court of law before the abortion procedure is made available? What if the jury gets it wrong? What if the process takes so long that the pregnancy progresses into a late term status? How could this legal process actually take place in time to have the abortion early in the pregnancy?

In the case of the health of the mother? Who makes the decision that the health of the mother warrants an abortion procedure? A doctor? A team of doctors? A court? An ethics panel? What say does the mother have if the decision is not wholly hers? How will these decisions be made fairly and consistently across the United States?

When these questions are posed to “pro-life” persons in the first category, it becomes apparent that the complexity of the processes involved in making decisions about incest, rape, and the health of the mother would likely lead to many more victims of incest and rape not having access to abortion procedures: and in the case of the health of the mother, it is likely the ability of the mother to make a decision about her own health would be much more limited than is now the case.

In effect, the complexity of the implementation of a category 1 ban on abortions would make it practically impossible for most victims of incest and rape to have access to an abortion procedure and would disenfranchise women from making decisions related to risks to their own health. In other words, a category 1 ban on abortions effectively becomes something closer to a category 2 ban on abortion, which ends up forcing victims of rape and incest to give birth to the children of their rapists or seek an abortion illegally.

Persons who do not want women to be forced to give birth to the children of their rapists and abusers and who do not want women to lose autonomy in their decision making about their health do not fit into the simplistic category of “baby killer” into which so many Christian Right nationalists want to force them. Rather we realize that women who know their own circumstances ought to be given the autonomy to make decisions about access to abortion procedures and their own health. Many of us who do not want to ban abortions want to see fewer abortions; we want to create communities of hope and support for all mothers and their children; and we want to create systemic change in our communities to help make sure that persons have opportunity for a full and flourishing life. We are not “baby killers.” We simply realize that the legal and moral issues related to reproductive health and access to abortion procedures are much more complex than most pro-life persons are willing to recognize, and we want the women who most know what their own situation entails to be able to make their own decisions.

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The amount of suffering that people justify in the name of being “pro-life” is really messed up.

Why is it almost always the “pro-lifers” who are okay with separating children from their families and denying all persons access to our country who are seeking asylum?

Why is it almost always the “pro-lifers” who are against every person having access to affordable and good quality healthcare?

Why is it almost always “pro-lifers” who are against DACA and want to send persons away who came to our country as children and who experience our country as their only home?

Why are so many “pro-lifers” against paying all people a living wage?

Why is it almost always pro-lifers who seem to be okay with women being paid less than men for the same work?

Why is it almost always the “pro-lifers” who refuse to wear masks in a pandemic for the sake of the most vulnerable in our communities?

Why is it almost always the “pro-lifers” who end up going down the QAnon rabbit hole of dangerous disinformation and conspiracy theories?

Why is it almost always the “pro-lifers” who are okay with banning people who are Muslim from coming into our country and enjoying their religious liberties like everyone else?

Why is it almost always the “pro-lifers” who want people not to have access to free contraception with their health insurance?

Why is it almost always the “pro-lifers” who argue that persons should have their food stamps cut?

Why is it almost always the “pro-lifers” who seem okay with cutting social security benefits for our elderly and those who have lost a loved one who helped support them?

Why is it almost always the “pro-lifers” who cry election fraud when there is no evidence?

Why is it almost always the “pro-lifers” who want to make persons who are LGBTQIA+ live in the shadows again?

Why is it that the “pro-lifers,” who are predominantly also white Christians, are measurably the most racist group within society?

Why is it that so many “pro-lifers” are also so misogynistic in their language and behavior?

Why is it that most “pro-lifers” are so pro death penalty?

Why was it the “pro-lifers” who were the first to accept Trump’s birtherism lies about an African American president?

Why is it that most “pro-lifers” want to deny or ignore climate change and allow us to continue creating an unlivable climate for future generations?

Maybe it is because most “pro-lifers” are not really “pro-life” but rather simply pro-birth, and there is a deep difference between the two.

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extraction of indigenous persons from their lives, land, and culture – forced to march and die on trails wet with their blood and tears to strange lands from which they would later be extracted through lies and false promises for the unseen wealth below the soil that also would be extracted

extraction of Africans from their homelands and from their beloved families; chained as objectified chattel, whipped and tortured and lynched – the enslaved people who built a nation that saw them as three fifths human

extraction of people of color from economic, educational, and political opportunity – reminded of their place by signs and redlines, the gun and the rope, and flags and monuments of bigotry; extracted from their families by the bullet, the knee, or the chokehold of those in uniform or through imprisonment by a system that continues to discriminate and segregate

extraction of trees from the forests, life from the oceans, and wildlife from the land; extraction of fossil fuels and minerals from the earth that poison our water, air, and bodies; extraction through the removal of mountaintops and shaking of our homes; extraction from rivers whose waters no longer flow to the sea; and extraction of a livable climate from our common future

extraction of work from the poor, stripped of their labor’s value for the profit of the powerful, praised as essential in wars and pandemics, yet treated as expendable in practice; extraction of money and health from the impoverished to fund the militarized enforcement of the relentless extraction


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An Open Letter to Senator Mitt Romney

Senator Romney,

You cannot say on Tuesday that you support giving Trump a vote on his Supreme Court nominee and then get upset on Wednesday when Trump refuses to say whether he will accept a peaceful transfer of power. You either fully oppose a fascist or you end up aiding and abetting a fascist.

If you really are as truly upset as you say you are concerning what Trump said on Wednesday about not committing to accept a peaceful transition of power, then you will rescind what you said on Tuesday and now oppose a senate vote on Trump’s SCOTUS pick in the strongest and most unequivocal terms.

On Wednesday, Trump openly associated the need to quickly seat a new justice with his desire to have 9 justices on the Supreme Court to rule on matters and disputes related to the election. By supporting a vote on Trump’s SCOTUS nominee, you are supporting Trump’s efforts to use his appointees in the courts to rule in his favor concerning the validity of mail-in ballots, which will be Trump’s last desperate attempt to cling to power. This is directly related to his refusal to say he will accept the results of the election and commit to a peaceful transition of power.

When you courageously voted your conscience in support of convicting President Trump for abuse of power during his senate trial, it rightly led to the possibility that your legacy would be that you were the one Senate Republican with the integrity to stand up to the gross abuses of power of our current president. If, however, you continue to aid Trump in pursuing a vote on his Supreme Court nominee before the election, your legacy will simply be one of helping a despot in his last desperate attempt to hold onto and continue to abuse his power. Your vote for conviction will be followed by an asterisk and an explanation that you played a central and key role in assisting Trump in his attempt to abuse his power to force through a Supreme Court Justice appointment in hopes of creating a majority on the court that will rule in his favor on the baseless claims that the election is rigged against him.

We are dealing with the death of our democracy here, so stop thinking you can support or oppose Trump when it suits you. It is not about you. It is about us!

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It’s Time to Take Fall 2020 Online

College COVID-19 Cases Tracking Map – Source: The New York Times

Here is what colleges and universities are not getting (or perhaps they are simply refusing to see) – the virus is an airborne virus and there is significant evidence that it is transmitted through aerosols. You can have masks and social distancing in classrooms and public places, but in classrooms where a student, students, or faculty member may be sick, the virus can concentrate in the air over time – yes, masks will decrease the risk, but not completely. To make matters worse, most of these classrooms do not have windows or adequate ventilation systems to disperse the aerosols conveying the virus.

The most pressing problem contributing to COVID-19 outbreaks on campuses is the residential living, both in dorms and Greek houses where students are often living 2 to a room, 4 or more to a suite, and sharing bathrooms with roommates and suite mates. If one person gets sick in the suite, the chances of multiplying that one case by 3, 4, or more is almost guaranteed. Students cannot be expected to wear a mask in their own bedrooms, thus if one student in a suite is sick, the virus is concentrating in the air in the suite over time, leading to the likely infection of 4 students rather than one, not to mention the people those four students may come in contact with outside of their rooms. And this is if every student is following the rules and not going to any parties or gathering in any large groups on or off campus.

You throw something like a football team or other contact sports into the mix with players breathing directly into each other’s faces in practices and games, and the situation on campus becomes even more unmanageable. Yet the lucrative income of college sports drives universities to do just that in their attempt to keep the millions of dollars coming in, but we all must realize that real people will die because of these decisions.

Even universities like the University of Illinois, with a massive testing regimen of 10,000 to 15,000 tests a day (sometimes 2% of the total daily tests in the entire United States) and significant investments in contact tracing cannot control and contain the virus. How can we expect colleges that can only manage to test symptomatic students to fare any better?

Campuses are only one, two, or three weeks into classes; and many are already experiencing outbreaks that are out of control. Numerous campuses have rightly suspended in persons classes. Hundreds more will follow. The question we must ask ourselves is this: “When hundreds of campuses are forced to shut down in person instruction after tens of thousands or even more students faculty, staff, and surrounding community members are infected; how many serious illnesses, hospitalizations, and preventable deaths with follow?”

When colleges and universities wait until they have significant COVID-19 outbreaks before they move to online instruction, they have already passed the point where it is likely some people will die either on or off campus owing to the lack of foresight by the campus to understand that residential college life with in person instruction creates one of the most conducive environments possible for the spread of the virus. For COVID-19, our colleges and universities are similar to cruise ships, but instead of being surrounded by the sea, they are surrounded by communities full of vulnerable people, too many of whom will die preventable deaths because decisions to close will come too late.

The evidence is clear where all of this is headed, and college and universities now have the responsibility to practice what they preach, listen to science, and make evidence-based and ethical decisions that will contribute to the well being of our communities and society as whole by moving away from residential living and in person instruction for the rest of the fall semester so that we can finally have a chance to contain this deadly virus. Borrowing language from MLK, “the fierce urgency of now” requires action because “there is such a thing as too late.”

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An Immoral and Deadly Return to Campus

Colleges and universities have to face the reality that their plans for on campus learning in the fall semester, many of which are thoughtful and well-intentioned, would be both immoral and deadly to implement when the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are surging as is the case right now.

It is the responsibility of colleges and universities as communities of higher learning that teach and value the humanities and sciences to honor the inherent worth of every person and respect scientific evidence. This requires colleges and universities to make the moral decision to honor the life of their students, staff, faculty, administrators, and the broader communities of which we are all a part by not reopening our campuses while the spread of the virus is out of control. Colleges and universities must be leaders in containing the virus through the careful application of ethics and science and not become leaders of increasing the spread of the virus, which is already out of control.

If COVID-19 were only spread through larger droplets that do not stay in the air very long, then it might be safe to hold in person classes on college and university campuses this fall under very strict protocols of social distancing and mask wearing, but the scientific evidence (something to which all colleges and universities should be paying attention) now tells us that COVID-19 is also airborne in smaller droplets in aerosol form that can stay in the air and concentrate for hours, making dorms and classrooms some of the highest risk areas for the spread of the virus.

I understand that the financials of many institutions of higher education are in a dire situation. Colleges and universities are going to lose students in the fall whether or not in person classes are held on campus. Some students will not want to come back unless classes are held in person, and some students will not want to come back unless classes are held online. Hopefully colleges and universities will be willing to lose some enrollment in the pursuit of keeping our communities safe by not attempting on campus learning in the fall, rather than risking the permanent loss of students, staff, and faculty through preventable death. As a higher education colleague said to me today: “Whatever choices we make, they won’t work for everyone and we will lose some folks. Better to lose some folks from the rolls than lose some folks from life.” In the end, if classes are held in person in the peak of a pandemic, there will likely be more loss of money through wrongful death lawsuits than there will be from lower enrollment.

I can’t imagine anyone wanting to be back in the classroom in the fall more than I do. I love teaching. I love being with students. I love being with staff and faculty colleagues. It is very difficult to recreate something close to the academic community that is made possible through on-campus learning. I miss it deeply, but as deeply as I miss it, as a faculty person who is also a minister, I have had the difficult and sacred responsibility of leading funeral and memorial services for faculty, staff, and students on a number of occasions during my 24 years as a professor. The deaths of those students, staff, and faculty were beyond anyone’s control. If colleges and universities pursue on campus learning in the fall during what is currently the peak of the pandemic, there will be many funerals and memorial services across the nation in the fall for faculty, staff, and students, as well as for members of their families; and we will not be able to say that their deaths were beyond our control.

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Propaganda and Fatality Rates

The Trump Administration is full of propagandists, and the only way Trump can possibly win in November is through propaganda. Trump doesn’t have to do very much to keep the 40% of U.S. Americans who apparently would not care if he exchanged his suit and long red ties for a white robe and pointy white hood, but he will have to convince a few more people beyond his base to vote for him as well as suppress the votes of those who oppose him if he hopes for a second term.

Here is where the propaganda comes in. To attract a few more people beyond the 40% who will vote for him even if he raised the confederate flag over the White House until the November election and changed the national anthem to “I Wish I Was in Dixie,” Trump and his propagandists must get people to believe that Trump has COVID-19 under control (note Trump almost exclusively calls it the “China Virus” now to fuel the racism and xenophobia of his base and keep them energized) and that the economy will recover quickly. Their current tactic is to cherry pick from the data about the pandemic and paint it in the most positive of all possible ways.

Over the past three weeks or so, the cherry-picked numbers they are highlighting lead them to make the misleading claim that the United States “has the lowest fatality rate in the world” when it comes to the virus. Here is what they are doing and why it is so misleading, disingenuous, and simply not helpful in understanding the current status of the pandemic in the United States. When Trump and his allies state boldly that “we have the lowest fatality rate in the world,” they are using the number of fatalities per cases to make this claim and conveniently leave out that we have one of the highest per capita fatality rates and the highest gross number of fatalities in the world.

Here is what makes this claim truly unhelpful in addressing the current crisis we are facing. While it is true that our fatality per case rate has fallen significantly especially over the past month, the Trump Administration does not address the main reason for this decline – the fact that we have an out of control outbreak across large swaths of the country leading to the highest number of new cases by far than during in any other time of the pandemic. So with many more cases, even though the number of deaths has been increasing again over the past couple of weeks, the number of deaths per cases has fallen dramatically.

And here is the most dishonest part of the current claim that the United States “has the lowest fatality rate in the world” – the deaths we are seeing now are for the most part deaths of persons who contracted the virus many weeks ago. Cases lag testing, hospitalizations lag identification of cases, and deaths lag hospitalizations. The fact is that we do not yet know what the true fatality rate per number of cases will be until all of these current new cases run their course.

One can hope and even expect that the fatality rate per number of cases in the United States will continue to be lower than it was earlier in the pandemic given that many of the cases now are younger people and our treatment methods are improving. It might even be so low that we will continue to have the lowest fatality rate per number of cases in the world, but we cannot overlook the fact that unlike so many of our peers, in the United States the virus is out of control, and the end result is that we have and we will continue to have many more deaths per capita than almost all of our peer nations.

All of this is a much more complex picture than the rosy “we have the lowest fatality rate in the world” picture being painted by Trump and his associates, and this is because they are not concerned about transparency and the truth; rather they only care about what will get Trump re-elected. In summary, their propaganda is meant to energize their racist and xenophobic base by blaming China and to calm the fears of their wealthy supporters by claiming the virus is not a long term threat to the economy by highlighting only the data that support their narrative that the virus is under control and the economy is surging back.

If you combine this propaganda about COVID-19 with the propaganda against mail in ballots and the propaganda that our cities are cesspools of violence that only Trump can control; you see the path (narrow as it may be) that Trump and his associates are taking towards the election. This propaganda and the very real and systematic efforts to suppress and split the votes of those who oppose Trump in November continue to be existential threats to our democracy.

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Truth and Reconciliation

“Truth and Reconciliation” – July 19, 2020, Red River Unitarian Universalist Church, Denison, TX – online service.
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