I have heard many people complain that governmental responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are depriving those in the U.S of the freedoms guaranteed to each of us by our Constitution. I find that most of those complaining seem to believe that free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, etc. are absolute licenses for U.S. citizens to do precisely as they wish, without government interference. Those who actually know something about constitutional law, lawyers who study the Constitution in law school, for example, know those freedoms are not, and never have been, absolute.
In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in Jacobsen v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts that “the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person . . . does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good.”
As with most legal issues, competing societal values must be balanced. And the reasoning process to strike that balance is often nuanced and subtle in ways that escape people who are inclined to take a simplistic approach to complex problems.
As the law firm Best, Best and Krieger, LLP wrote on May 16, 2020, “The government’s broad powers to protect the public during declared emergencies are well-established, but this power is not unfettered. . . . The courts have noted that an “inherent tension exists between the exercise” of personal freedoms and rights “and the government’s need to maintain order during a period of social strife,” as stated in the 1994 California appellate court decision In re Juan C. The government’s burden is to successfully navigate that tension by protecting the public health and safety, while preserving individual rights and liberties. “[T]he government must make every effort to avoid trammeling its citizens’ constitutional rights. By the same token, those rights are not absolute. ‘[T]he Government’s regulatory interest in community safety can, in appropriate circumstances, outweigh an individual’s liberty interest,’ the court said. . . . Resolving the tension between responding to an emergency and upholding individual rights and liberties is complicated.” [Best, Best, and Krieger, LLP, https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/the-clash-between-emergency-powers-and-88205/.]
But writing today as your minister rather than as a lawyer, my interest is not primarily to find the right legal balance between individual constitutional rights and government-imposed restrictions “for the common good.” Instead, I want us to consider this spiritual question: “What personal inconvenience am I, or should I be, willing to accept, what sacrifice should I be willing to make, for the good of my neighbor and the collective welfare of my city, state, country, and world?”
That is a question I have not heard asked by those who grouse that their individual freedoms of movement, activity, and association during this pandemic have been unreasonably, if not unlawfully, curtailed by the government. Instead, their focus seems entirely self-centered: “How are my rights being infringed (regardless of the consequences to others)?” For us as Unitarian Universalists, the First Principle must encompass the health and safety of others as part of their inherent worth and dignity equal to our own. For us, the Seventh Principle recognizes that respect for the interdependent web of all existence acknowledges that each of us is only a small part of that web, along with everyone else. And that what each of us does, whether out of insistence on our individual rights on the one hand, or a felt obligation to share sacrifice willingly on the other, affects the web we and others are part of. We do not get to value what we want for ourselves individually above the common good. What should we be willing to bear to keep others safe?