A so-called “shelter in place” order passed by the city of Columbia, South Carolina in the hopes of containing the spread of the 2019-2020 coronavirus will not extend to religious gatherings, according to a letter from the city attorney’s office to mayor Steve Benjamin.
The letter from Teresa A. Knox referenced a request received from Benjamin as to whether the city’s order “applie(d) to religious activities.”
In her letter to the mayor, Knox referenced a recent opinion from the office of S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson regarding the enforceability of an executive order from governor Henry McMaster banning public gatherings of three or more people.
In that opinion (.pdf), S.C. solicitor general Bob Cook warned in no uncertain terms against the unlawful imposition of constitutional liberties – even during states of emergency. Specifically, Cook’s letter cited the section of the South Carolina code of laws (§ 16-7-10) addressing the emergency powers of the executive branch during a declared state of emergency. In referencing this section, his letter noted that “the enforcement of this criminal statute must yield to established constitutional limitations.”
Among the specific fundamental liberties to which such a statute must “yield?”
Religious gatherings and freedom of assembly for political purposes …
“The statute was intended to keep the peace not keep citizens from exercising their constitutional rights,” Cook wrote. “It should be read and applied by (law enforcement) officers with that in mind. In short: In case of conflict between the statute and fundamental constitutional liberties, those liberties must prevail.”
To its credit, the city of Columbia – which is currently battling the attorney general on an unconstitutional gun ordinance – indicated through its attorney that it would comply with the attorney general’s previously issued opinion regarding religious and political gatherings.
Citing the opinion from Cook, Knox wrote to Benjamin that “the city will also recognize the fundamental constitutional liberties afforded to our citizens.”
To be clear: This news outlet does not believe churches, synagogues, mosques or other religious organizations should hold services anytime soon. Same goes for large groups congregating for any purpose.
Until we know more about the virus, we believe the safe call is to hold off on such gatherings.
Zooming the lens back further, though: Irrespective of their position on religious (or political) assembly, are these orders constitutional? And at this point, are they practical? Especially if it is true that the coronavirus was spreading in our nation, state and communities long before we started tracking it?
Our news outlet opined extensively on the shelter in place issue in this post, arguing “most South Carolinians who can stay at home already are staying at home.”
Ultimately, though, we need more data on the virus before we can assess the efficacy of these responses.
Also, as we were going to press with this article, Wilson’s office issued an updated order affirming that the emergency powers of the governor’s office trump the emergency powers of municipalities.
As of Friday morning, an estimated 85,724 Americans had tested positive for the virus while 1,275 (1.5 percent of the known positive tests) have died as a result of complications from it, according to a database maintained by The New York Times.
Globally, there are 465,915 confirmed coronavirus cases in 199 countries and territories – with 21,031 deaths (4.5 percent of the known positive tests), according to the latest data from the World Health Organization (WHO).
In South Carolina, officials have announced 456 confirmed cases with nine deaths (1.9 percent of the known positive tests), although as we have repeatedly pointed out these estimates are essentially meaningless in light of the paucity of testing – due in no small part to critical supply shortages.
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