Neither Pandemic nor Panic Supersede the First Amendment

Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River church in Tampa, Florida, strongly believes that God wants his church to continue holding live services for hundreds of parishioners even in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hillsborough County sheriff Chad Chronister and state attorney Andrew Warren strongly believe that they’re entitled to threaten Howard-Browne with arrest for holding those services, then follow through on that threat.

Howard-Browne is obviously willing to go to jail for his belief. Are Chronister and Warren willing to go to prison for theirs?

Whether Howard-Browne is correct in his assessment of God’s commands isn’t something I’ll pretend to know. But Chronister and Warren are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, incorrect in their claims of authority.

The First Amendment to the Constitution protects both the “free exercise of” religion and the right “peaceably to assemble.” While that amendment initially bound only Congress, the 14th Amendment has generally been construed to extend its strictures to the state and local levels of government.

And then there’s 18 United States Code, Sections 241 and 242.

Section 241 provides for up to ten years of imprisonment if “two or more persons [for example, Chad Chronister and Andrew Warren] conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same.”

Section 242 adds another potential year of imprisonment for doing the above “under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom,” including “stay-at-home” or “lockdown” orders issued by local and state political officials.

I double-checked, just to make sure. Neither the First Amendment nor either of those US Code provisions include an “unless someone jumps up and down and screeches that there’s an emergency” exception.

Rodney Howard-Browne may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer (many churches are holding services online and I haven’t heard of any divine smite-downs over it), but he’s within his rights.

Chronister and Warren may be genuinely concerned about the spread of COVID-19, but they’re also lawless hooligans operating well beyond any reasonable claim of legitimate authority.

Sadly, they’re far from unique. Once the immediate danger is past, we should proceed immediately to Nuremberg-type tribunals to deal with them and the hundreds or even thousands of temporarily over-empowered scofflaws like them.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism. He lives and works in north central Florida. This article is reprinted with permission from William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism.

47 thoughts on “Neither Pandemic nor Panic Supersede the First Amendment”

  1. I literally have PTSD from Catholic School, but religious freedom is a basic human right and the police state is a basic human evil. Let this wacko free!

      1. As free as you are to spread the common flu. If we don’t draw the line, the government won’t and anything and everything will become a viable excuse for tyranny.

        1. This is not the flu.

          It’s likely that over 70% of the planet will eventually be infected. And the vast majority of those will have mild or no symptoms.

          However, as this is a novel zoonotic coronavirus, humans have no natural immunity to it.

          This virus has a combination of traits that guarantee its fast spreading beyond the lack of immunity. It is highly contagious, more than the flu. It also has a relatively long incubation period (from infection to symptoms), during which time the person is contagious. Some people have asymptomatic infections (not immunity, the virus is not being destroyed any faster, it just is not giving the host symptoms) and they too are contagious. Respiratory droplets are expelled not only in coughs and sneezes, but in just talking.

          The exponential growth of the disease is what this obnoxious but necessary social distancing thing is meant to stymie. Were we just going around as normal, you WOULD see real exponential growth.

          Which brings us to the carrying capacity of health care systems, individual hospitals, and particularly their ICUs.

          This carrying capacity originally is an ecological term referring to the maximum number of individuals in a species a certain environment and its resources can maintain (i.e., food). In applying it to the healthcare system, individual hospitals and their ICUs, it is represented by the availability of beds, meds, medical personnel and, critically, equipment, including personal protective equipment for medical personnel so they do not get sick (thus lowering carrying capacity) and ventilators for the most dire cases.

          One can brush aside the relatively low hospitalization and even lower mortality rate because they are not seeing what is happening in hospitals. Silly videos showing empty hospital parking lots are a preposterous way to claim that there is no crisis in the ICUs. Here’s a hint: Parking lots and ICUs are different places. And why are those parking lots empty? Because hospitals no longer allow visitors and have cancelled all elective procedures.

          It is not the rate itself that most matters when it comes to this issue of carrying capacity (though it should inform our understanding of this disease as a whole), it is the absolute number of dire cases that matter. Already we are seeing ventilator splitting between two patients. Thus the carrying capacity is being breached. X is the number of patients who require ventilators (for C19 or any other respiratory ailment) and Y is the number of available ventilators. If X is greater than Y, people are going to die. And of course, ventilators themselves are not miraculous machines, especially with an infection that begins midly as an upper respiratory infection, which is highly contagious, and then attacking the lower respiratory system, less contagious and potentially deadly even with a ventilator. So as X and Y near each other, doctors are going to have to start making decisions about who will perhaps live and who will certainly die.

          As this is a novel zoonotic coronavirus, to which humans have no natural immunity, this situation will not be improving anytime soon. We can hope hotter weather stymies the virus, but even if it does, it will be back with a vengeance in the fall. A vaccine is at least a year away.

          Desperate doctors are now just throwing hydroxychloroquine at the the disease, one of many drugs. There are anecdotal reports of people recovering with the use of these drugs. New Jersey’s first C19 case survived and was given hydroxy while on a ventilator. He has since recovered fully. He is also 32. We need to see some case reports of an older person on a ventilator saved by this drug. The only reports I have seen emphasize that hydroxy is really only shown to be effective in mild and moderate cases. Hopefully that is incorrect.
          Regarding the discovery of a vaccine, there is quite a gap of time between discovering a vaccine and its mass production and mass distribution. Many will die. Likewise for a curative drug. Hydroxy currently costs about $50 per 40-pill bottle. Not bad.

          Big Pharma, if its efficacy is proven far and wide, will obviously raise the prices as high as they possibly can.

          1. I don’t deny any of that. My point isn’t that covid is the flue, it’s that if you give the government the ability to eviscerate basic human rights for a “good” excuse, you better f**king believe they will use a bad one next time. There are no half-measures when it comes to tyranny. An inch this week will be a mile next year. Just look at 9/11. Laws to protect national security are now being used to lynch Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning. No more! You can have safety or you can have freedom. I choose freedom. I isolate because I choose to to protect my family. I don’t need the government to tell me to do that. Those who do don’t need the Constitution to be morons.

          2. I acknowledge that the government is owned by plutocrats and authoritarians. They will exploit this tragedy in myriad ways.

            It is good that you would isolate yourself. But that has nothing to do with the facts above regarding carrying capacity of ICUs.

            As you have acknowledged, the danger of this virus is real and obvious. How do you think the federal government should have responded to this? What should they do moving forward?

          3. I’m an anarchist. I might as well just rip that band-aid off right now. The only thing the federal government should do is cease to exist because existing is the only thing the federal government has ever been capable of doing successfully. This sh*t blew up in a huge, heavily centralized, federal government in China. It’s size and need to justify it’s size is precisely what lead to the wall of secrecy that let this thing spread on an international level. I’m a localist. I’m not gonna tell people how to deal with this in Alabama because I don’t live in Alabama and I don’t know what measures would be effective their. In my community in rural PA, we shut down the campus and battened down the hatches. We’re getting hit but we’re handling it one day at a time. The federal government hasn’t done sh*t for us and they don’t need to. Anything done federally can be done better locally. Anything done by big government or big business can be done better via voluntary collective or mutual aid society.

          4. I am a philosophical anarchist, i.e., the State lacks moral legitimacy and if its edicts truly conflict with individual liberty, then they are ultimately invalid, but there is no expectation from me that we will have an anarchist society for quite some time. We are too filled with ills, both societal and, as we have seen, literal.

            I agree with the idea of subsidiarity. From Wiki:
            “Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.”

            Note nuanced language, and so I disagree with your assertion “Anything done federally can be handled locally.”

            However, I am also an MMT-er (sorry, if you know what that is, then you probably despise it). Here is how I see it:

            The Feds should expand social welfare programs as much as possible, including UBI and full health insurance. They should initiate a massive national infrastructure renewal. Just really maximize programs that benefit individuals and households in the immediate term. One of two things will happen:

            1. Hyperinflation and the collapse of the dollar. As the dollar is the economic glue that binds our political union, the US will dissolve and public administration will decentralize. The stability of however the US dissolves would be questionable, given the poor financial planning of the many states. In these would be your most preferred communities, building some semblance of responsible public administration at the local level.

            2. MMT is correct. A nation with a sovereign currency can never go bankrupt, a status the US has firmly since Bretton Woods collapsed. Bonds and taxes are not what actually funds the federal government. They are subsequent, not a requisite. Prices in the modern economy are based on far more than just the money supply. And all is well. Especially because our bridges are not crumbling and we have all these awesome social programs.

            I refer to option 1 as “libertarian or anarchist (depending on who I am talking to accellerationism”. It is this argument I made to all libertarians and even anarchists for supporting Bernie, just at your primary and general. I understand that many anarchists are philosophically against electoral politics. OK, I have made my case and now of course it doesn’t matter. Bernie was weak when he needed to be strong. Stale when he needed to be fresh, meaning point out the objective reality of Joe Biden’s obvious and rapid descent into dementia.

            Returning to the virus. As I said, this is “a novel zoonotic coronavirus [which has a presymptomatic transmissibility], to which humans have no natural immunity.” The response to a pandemic does not change by location. The correct response is just what has been recommended, social distancing, the disinfection of surfaces, and frquent handwashing. Throw gloves in there too. Got any masks? I ordered some from Alibaba last week, delivery date in May lolol.

            In major cities with considerable population densites, this will is even more important. Clearly you would oppose mandatory, punishable curfews by the federal government, and courts would probably agree, though 25% of all circuit judges are Trumps (McConnell’s) appointees. Would you oppose such an order by a state government? As a localist, say a city’s infection rate does not fall with voluntary measures. And severe cases needing hospitalization continue to breach carrying capacity. Would you agree that is a dire suituation? Would a municipality’s mandatory, punishable curfew (as in a ticket, not arrest and counterproductively thrown into a jail with the potentially ill) be an acceptable matter handled at the local level?

          5. “2. MMT is correct. A nation with a sovereign currency can never go bankrupt, a status the US has firmly since Bretton Woods collapsed. Bonds and taxes are not what actually funds the federal government. They are subsequent, not a requisite. Prices in the modern economy are based on far more than just the money supply. And all is well. Especially because our bridges are not crumbling and we have all these awesome social programs.”

            You are delusional, and more importantly, WRONG!

          6. Note that you just ignored the first part. If MMT is wrong, it will result in hyperinflation and the end of the political union. Libertarians may rejoice.

            However, it is not wrong. It is first and foremost a description of how modern public finance interacts with the digitalization of the monetary system and monetary sovereignty since the end of Bretton woods. You can oppose things that the government does, but you can’t refute the operational reality of the modern monetary system.

          7. I know it to be ‘wrong’ because I don’t judge it’s “operational reality” on the time span of an election cycle or even a politician’s career length. Economic reality may be temporarily ignored but it cannot in the long term be negated. Nations (their leaders) who believe that spending and debt have no tangible limit but their opportunistic and expedient whim are delusional. The Magic Money Theory will get its inevitable comeuppance when the majority finally, if belatedly, realize that the fiat ‘money’ they fabricate has no value but is only the empty promise of a pathological liar and that debt repaid with pennies on the dollar loaned in purchasing power is just theft in disguise.

            P,S. Our bridges and roads ARE deteriorating!

          8. ” who believe that spending and debt have no tangible limit but their opportunistic and expedient whim are delusional”… This is not what MMT states. Much to the contrary, it notes that there ARE limits on spending. Those limits are the real resources of an economy. Limits like the debt ceiling are artificial political constraints.

            “debt repaid with pennies on the dollar loaned in purchasing power is just theft in disguise.” …..As stated, part of MMT is the understanding that price inflation in the modern economy is based on far more than just the money supply.

            “P,S. Our bridges and roads ARE deteriorating!”… Indeed, a massive infrastructure renewal program is necessary. Fortunately the operational realities of the modern economy make its financing quite simple. The obstacles are the policymakers who don’t understand that.

          9. You’re right. Missed a step or two…. If MMT is wrong about price inflation being far more complicated than just the money supply, and we engage in massive social spending, hyperinflation will result and will end the political union. Libertarians may rejoice.”

          10. Hyperinflation has resulted before without “ending the political union” it happened in. What’s different about MMT such that it would necessarily have that effect?

  2. You are embarrassing those of us who contribute to for your smug jibe at responsible authorities protecting citizens from serious and possibly fatal consequences from dangerous and ignorant activity during a national epidemic emergency. Moreover, the reckless actions of those gathering in confined spaces during an epidemic can spread tens, hundreds, even thousands of infections in the short term and millions, possibly many times more in the long term. How many lives can we allow to be taken by such actions. Wake-up, there is nothing libertarian about behavior which spreads a fatal contagion.

    1. You might want to take that up with someone other than me. I did not submit this piece to

      Sorry, not responsible for your Mussolini fetish either.

      1. Who gives a damn who submitted “this piece” Where the buck stops is with the author, not the person who brought such to our attention..WTF.?? Or is your reply some tangential denial of having penned the “piece”:article.? There seems to be some gargantuan void of comprehension here. Being carless handling fireworks is foolish, but with large destructive devices that may cause mass death, is and should be a crime in purportion to the number of potential fatalities they have power to cause. As far as my “”Mussolini fetish” I don’t think I have ever mentioned his name in all my years commenting here, but if I ever was to have brought his name to the discussions here, I can not imagine it would have been in any posative light.
        Could you have stooped any lower or rummaged worse detris than to accuse me of having a fetish for him? Stick to what you know and your usual sensible antiwar advocacy. Switching sides to pimp some fundamentalist wackos during such frought times detracts from your oeuvre of commendable output.

        1. “Who gives a damn who submitted ‘this piece’ Where the buck stops is with the author, not the person who brought such to our attention.”

          Well, make up your mind. One minute it’s embarrassing to you because you claim that you donate to the web site where it appears. The next minute the web site where it appears has nothing to do with it.

          If you don’t want me noticing your authoritarian kink, you can take that kink off display any time you choose.

          1. I’m having trouble understanding what is going on here. You seem to be accusing me of having an authoritarian “kink” because I approve of the authorities attempting to stop these fundamentalists from actions likely to contribute the infection mass during a pandemic. I believe in religious freedom, but not people sacrificing babys, and other actions that harm especially the helpless and those who do not share their “G-d will protect us” beliefs. Do you believe that religious freedom is an absolute license for religious practises which would otherwise be crimes. Perhaps you can recall when Timothy Leary tried to beat a marijuana bust with that defence.

            I’m not looking to make a stink or denigh anyone sensible religious practise, but spotlight it when it endangers human wellness & welfare.

          2. “I’m having trouble understanding what is going on here.”

            I’m not surprised.

            Here’s what’s going on here:

   published a piece you don’t like.

            That’s pretty much the extent of it.

            If you want to blame me for writing the piece, that’s fine — yes, I wrote the piece.

            But as for the piece being published on, that’s not something you get to blame me for. I neither submitted the piece to nor asked to publish it.

          3. You defend your unbalanced and outrageous assertions. Maybe you would kindly re-evaluate giving support to wackos endangering not just us & me but those who cannot protect themselves worldwide!!!

          4. “Perhaps you can recall when Timothy Leary tried to beat a marijuana bust with that defence.”

            Whether Timothy Leary was able to “beat” a marijuana bust or not with that argument is irrelevant, the fact is, his argument was morally valid. If the state has the authority to prevent the ingestion of any substance, there is no religious freedom. If the state can force you not to ingest something, the state as Anti-Christ also has the power to force you to ingest anything it wishes, including torture drugs. The powers we are giving to the state now will certainly be used for less benign purposes than what you now claim is a “good” reason to exercise said powers.

          5. If the guy goes around the burb lighting fires because he believes in his constitutional right to combustionloo, should we give him matches.. Yes the government will abuse it’s power, but for us to conflate legitimate law enforcement with abussive measures & actions only strenthensthe State’s claim of being the only legitimate and sane actor.

          6. “legitimate law enforcement”

            Preventing someone from making their own decisions about what substances to put in their own body is NOT “legitimate law enforcement.” Who owns your body anyway, you, or the state? If the state can make those decisions, as I stated, there is no religious freedom.

          7. Those of us who are aware of your afilliation and probable employment here & have contributed are the ones who should find this let the wackos contribute to spreading the contagion embarrassing. Just goes to show how the “isms” are and can be subject to fits of crazy dogma.. “Libertarianism”?

    2. It maybe a risk, but it’s our individual choices. You don’t have to go. This is the point!!

  3. I am utterly baffled that anyone who would contribute ($?, not clear) to a website called Antiwar dot com would support US governments’ waging war on their citizens by imposing mass unemployment, mass warrantless house arrest, mass denial of human and constitutional rights and–coming soon to your neighborhood–out-and-out martial “law.”

    However, I am happy to say that I learned several new words from the preceding dialogue. None of them from Mr. Knapp.

  4. It’s becoming more and more clear that further empowering the police surveillance state is one of the main goals of this manufactured “crisis”. Designed from the beginning to serve political, economic, and social ends that will result is greater control and surveillance of populations and centralization of economic activity. And every tin-pot wannabe-dictator mayor and governor in the country is issuing arbitrary decrees on a daily basis.

    Our rights as free people have never been under greater threat than they are now from our new Committees of Public Safety and their would-be Robespierres.

    And isn’t it a bit too coincidental that Bill Gates is suddenly all over the media, being promoted as a “public health expert” (this from a sophomore college dropout whose main expertise is marketing and having been in the right place at the right time when the personal computer industry was taking off)? And that he and his foundations just happened to have been running “novel coronavirus” pandemic scenarios back in October, and he already had an “ID2020” scheme in place to promote to governments (a “supercharged” ID that will include health and vaccine info) to make tracking and surveillance even easier?

    1. Yeah, sure.. Where did you find that Gate’s crews were doing “pandemic scenarios” back in October? Good stuff!!! Whatever the genesis, let’s try to make sure that this epidemic kills as few as possible. If it is a deep state op to tighten the clamps, so be it, another reason why we should not assist it’s proportion by nuts trying to prove that the almighty protects thim.

      We should put our efforts into slowing and stoping the contagion. After this horror has past is the time to investigate it’s genesis & how it was urilized, and by whom. Bringing light to this episode will find if malfeasance & unconstitutional actions were promulgated or employed. Further, we will learn better what works, doesn’t work in our battles with future virus demics and unwarranted power grabs, vs best practices to limit exponential propagation: (After this immediate crisis passes.) Thanks for your comment.

  5. How about a grant to study how powerful psychosamatic illness truly is, can we convince our selves we are sick and show symptoms even if it’s all in our minds? Can we literally be scared to death? Does the healing process start in our minds and can we create our own hell here on earth simply by what we believe? Behold the Kingdom is within you.

  6. I live where this happened. Sherriff Chronister was only upholding the law in order to protect the general public. There’s a consensus that he acted correctly and the pastor in question certainly did not. While the pastor was detained and released on bail the same day and may have to pay a fine, his actions easily could cost someone their life.
    Even for a libertarian, one must realize that your right to swing your arms ends at my nose, is a good and decent general principle for any civilized society to employ. Also, you have to take into account the number of retirees living in Florida, and that Covid-19 is especially deadly among seniors.

      1. Wrong! He violated a countywide Safer-at-Home ordinance.
        And apparently you don’t understand how contagious diseases such as the novel Coronavirus is transmitted (Hint: It doesn’t follow your “logic”), or why disease clusters must be avoided, even at the cost of your precious, albeit misunderstood, ideals. But then again, you don’t have to live in Tampa. I do.

        1. “Wrong! He violated a countywide Safer-at-Home ordinance.”

          Yes, he violated an unconstitutional non-law.

          Chronister violated the First Amendment, and US Code Title 18, Sections 241 and 242.

          Those are the facts.

          You don’t have to like them.

          They’re the facts whether you like them or not.

        2. I do happen to understand contagion reasonably well.

          It’s not so much that you’re wrong about that as that it’s irrelevant. There is no “unless there’s a virus” exception to the laws I cite.

          I’m curious as to why you “have to” live in Tampa. Last time I checked, Americans were still free to move. I had new neighbors move in last weekend. They didn’t move from Tampa, just from Cedar Key, which is a little closer. I also have a friend in Ohio whose daughter moved to California last week.

  7. Why wait till its over,
    The candiate govenors should be in jail now.

  8. It confuses and saddens me to read peoples apparent beliefs that the government actions in regard to covid-19 are the only thing that could possibly contain or protect society from this illness. This is the same fake argument I have seen in the past that alludes that in the absence of compulsory public education, no parent would ever educate their own children or that without government socialistic safety nets the poor would be left to die. These modern fictitious beliefs are a direct and willful denial of the fact that civil society; absent any top down dictate, was in the very recent past the sole provider of such helps and that it did so far more effectively than the State mandates than drove out and supplanted them. The same is true for medicine and health issues, including so-called ‘public’ health. It is my belief that no government action has ever successfully contained an outbreak of infectious disease nor is it likely that such action ever could accomplish such a thing. But if social measures are even capable of such a restraint or control then I have no doubt that they will be more justly and effectively provided by voluntary cooperative arrangements than by coercive authoritarian dictates.

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