Guidance, directives, and orders of various civil governments are restricting the exercise of religion in various ways. Let’s be plainspoken: As Americans, we don’t like that. To possess all other civic freedoms but not freedom of religion is a state of misery.
Government restrictions are for the sake of saving physical life. Under the Fifth Commandment (You shall not kill), we must be for that. But the physical is not the only realm of human health, life, and death. In this pandemic, there also are matters of spiritual health, life, and death.
Consider a person dying of something completely aside from COVID-19. Consider the devil’s assaults in the hour of death. Confession, Absolution, and the Sacrament of the Altar are the vaccines effective against the lethal disease of fear, doubt, and condemnation.
In a society of tension between church and state, how can we promote the health and life of citizens in both the physical and spiritual realms? Pandemic or no pandemic, there must be ways to love our neighbors in both realms.
In cyberspace, reactions to the current state of affairs for the church under civil government actions run the gamut from servile and slavish submission to open rebellion. Wherever you fall along that spectrum, I invite you to consider one proposition as still being true: Conflict be between church and state stands a chance of being softened by respectful petition to civil authorities for specific relief.
I have proof.
Clergy in my county asked whether they can visit parishioners who call for them. They want to be able to visit, and they want to obey the law. Good for them.
I read the 10-page directive of the Governor of Montana. There were a couple ways I could string together an argument that these visits, with proper precautions, could be allowed. But I was not sure. We don’t have pandemic emergency orders from the state but once every hundred years or so. The last time was the 1918 Spanish Influenza. These current orders are not ordinary documents, and it is more difficult than usual to be sure of interpretation.
The Governor’s Chief Legal Counsel was one of the presenters of an educational webinar about the pandemic and Montana’s actions to reduce its spread this past Monday morning. If anyone knows what the directive means, it would be him. That raised an opportunity. A person could ask him. What’s the worst that could happen? He could be too busy to answer everyone. He could be the wrong person to ask, and you need to ask someone else. There could be lots of things wrong with it. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
So I reached out Raphael Graybill, Governor Steve Bullock’s Chief Legal Counsel. God bless the Governor and his counsel. He responded personally to my messages. We talked through the scenarios. While this is not a formal legal opinion from him, for the time being, we have an arrangement that works for both church and state, for the government and the governed.
On the following conditions, a pastor in Montana may make pastoral visits:
1. Visits are subject to restrictions of particular venues, such as hospitals and nursing homes, which on their own apart from the Governor’s directive might completely prohibit visits or place restrictions beyond the ones listed here.
2. Use in-person visits only for acts than cannot be done adequately by other means. It is recognized that the administration of the Sacrament of the Altar cannot be done adequately by means other than in-person visit. [Give credit where credit is due. That is pretty decent consideration of the church’s interest by the state.]
3. Do not make physical contact with anyone during a visit.
4. Maintain distance of not less than 6 feet. (Note that some recommendations are for 10 feet. If 10 are feet available, use them.)
5. Wash hands as lately before a visit as possible. Carried-along hand sanitizer probably is best for use just before presenting for a visit.
6. Try not to touch any surfaces or objects (except the elements of the Sacrament and utensils for its administration)
7. Wash hands again shortly following a visit.
8. Take extra precautions around immune-compromised people and people 65 and older.
9. Note that both recommended guidance and enforceable directives and orders are changing on a daily basis. For example, a directive could be issued in the future that when going out of the home people are to wear face masks. Each person must stay up to date and follow current guidance, directives, and orders.
10. Understand that by visiting even one person, you could become a carrier of the disease and later infect others. The risk is not only to yourself becoming ill. It is a risk of you becoming a vector for the spread of the disease. Apply the above precautions strenuously with that in mind.
All in all, this transaction with the civil state on petition for interpretation of the Governor's order as applied to pastoral visits has been perfectly satisfactory. We on the church’s side should not add needlessly to tension with the state. We should not grandstand an issue. We should seek to resolve an issue rather than perpetuate it for some other agenda.
Remember to pray for the Governor of your state.
Whether we like it or not, because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, many of our ordinary freedoms as Americans and Montanans are being restricted, for the good of our neighbors and the community as a whole. This is not unprecedented. I posted an image of the Richland County order restricting freedoms during the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic. (See Richland County: 1918 & 2020 Diseases) In Montana today, the current restrictions are no more severe than they were in 1918. (See Montana Governor's 10-Page Stay Home Order and Exceptions (3-26-2020))
But there are essential things that must go on.
Montana is a republic. Essential to a free republic is the continuation of free elections. Pandemic or no pandemic, somehow we must maintain our free republic by holding the primary election regularly scheduled for June this year.
Under Montana’s election statutes, local government has standing authority to choose an option of mail balloting for certain elections, but not all elections. That option generally does not exist for the regular primary election.
Not to fear. Your local Election Administrator, Stephanie Verhasselt, and your Board of County Commissioners, have been on this job for some time. They saw this issue coming and began early to lead in the maintenance of our free republic.
Verhasselt worked with a variety of other offices in the state toward emergency authority from the Governor that was needed to allow an exceptional method of voting. Then she caused a resolution to be prepared for the Board of County Commissioners to activate the emergency option.
The Board of County Commissioners, after proper legal notice of the item of business by agenda, promptly took up the matter and have adopted an authorizing resolution that will let you vote without congregating dangerously at polling places.
The Richland County Courthouse is on lock-down, but essential work of government goes on, and our free republic is being preserved locally in a variety of ways that perhaps go unnoticed. This action to preserve our right to vote is just one of them.
Below is Resolution 2020-010, “A resolution providing that the 2020 primary election may be conducted by mail ballot and expanded early voting with COVID-19 precautions.”