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Governors Should Give Same Respect Toward Worship

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

— the First Amendment to the United States Constitution

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This week, millions of citizens across our country have exercised their First Amendment right of the people to peaceably assembly.

In our state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has supported the protesters — though the governor is quick to separate protesters from rioters – and encouraged them to exercise their First Amendment right to protest even though the governor is quick to admit that doing so will likely lead to a spike in COVID-19 infections.

The governors are right. Protestors, including those who have assembled peaceably in Jamestown and Dunkirk, have a right to raise their voices in a peaceful manner. Those who have assembled — particularly those who assembled while practicing appropriate social distancing and worn masks — should be commended.

Why, though, is there an incongruous handling of another right enumerated in the First Amendment. The right to peaceably assemble, after all, isn’t the first right enumerated in the First Amendment. That honor belongs to religion. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the amendment states.

Governors are encouraging people exercising their right to protest while placing limits on those same people’s rights to exercise their religious beliefs.

That makes little sense. Nor, frankly, does the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Friday in which the court turned away a request from a church in California to block enforcement of state restrictions on attendance at religious services. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh noted dissents. Kavanaugh’s, though, is interesting.

“The state cannot,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote, quoting from an appeals court decision in a different case, “‘assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work or go about the rest of their daily lives in permitted social settings.'” Later, Kavanaugh notes, “The church and its congregants simply want to be treated equally to comparable secular businesses. California already trusts its residents and any number of businesses to adhere to proper social distancing and hygiene practices.”

Kavanaugh’s logic makes sense. Governors are trusting people to be responsible in any number of situations, including exercising their right to peaceably assemble. In our view, governors should give the same deference to the first right enumerated in the First Amendment — the right to worship.

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