Letter to the Editor: Government suppression of First Amendment during pandemic

October 16, 2020 | 12:06 am

Updated October 16, 2020 | 11:27 am

Graphic by Owensboro Times

Every statewide elected official takes an oath to uphold the constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. As your elected State Treasurer, I have the added responsibility of watching all state expenditures, billions of dollars every year, and making sure that your taxpayer dollars are not being used in a way that violates the Constitution. 

In recent weeks, there have been stories circulating nationwide about the efforts of the Archbishop of San Francisco to overturn the punitive limits imposed on churches by the mayor of San Francisco. The last few days have seen a resurgence in the targeting of Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, as well as other houses of worship, by imposing hard caps of 10 and 25 people per service, regardless of the size of the church or synagogue. As efforts to protect civil liberties in those areas moves forward, we must remember that the targeting of religious exercise by state and local officials is not limited to the coastal “blue” states. 

Kentucky, whose politics will never be confused with New York or California, has itself seen multiple federal courts strike down executive orders issued by Gov. Andy Beshear, on the grounds that the orders limiting religious services, travel, or protest, violated the fundamental, constitutional rights of Kentuckians. In any other time in our history, a series of defeats of this magnitude would have been met with much greater attention and demand for accountability. 

Due to my role as a watchdog of public spending, I directed my office to review the way taxpayer dollars were being spent to enforce the administration’s questionable executive orders relating to First Amendment activities. Protecting our Commonwealth and its great citizens need not be done at the expense of the First Amendment. It is possible to protect the Commonwealth while respecting, and adhering to, a principle upon which this country was founded. My office requested information from a number of health departments around the Commonwealth, and received responses from several departments, as well as the Kentucky State Police. 

Our investigation uncovered numerous instances of law enforcement being used to monitor or shut down faith-based services; derogatory or confrontational comments made about religious exercise by those in leadership; and selective, targeted enforcement of mass gathering prohibitions, in violation of the First Amendment. The actions taken at a local level seem to be directly correlated to the decisions made, and the tone set, by the Governor’s administration in Frankfort, which itself has too often used daily briefings and press releases as opportunities to disparage or threaten any person or institution that questions the legality and appropriateness of the administration’s orders. 

On Oct. 22, I will be presenting my office’s findings to the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary in Frankfort. This will be an opportunity for legislators to consider what we have uncovered in relation to executive actions during last few months, and for the public to learn more about how taxpayer dollars have been spent to enforce arbitrary government orders. 

Kentuckians have established a constitution and laws that demand respect for the First Amendment rights of all citizens, regardless of their religious or political beliefs. During the 1930s, as our nation was trapped within the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression, and facing the rise of dangerous forces around the world, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes reminded the country that “[t]he Constitution was adopted in a period of great emergency.” He astutely noted that “[e]mergency does not create power” and that “[e]mergency does not increase granted power.” The extraordinary challenges presented in 2020 do not provide justification for expanding the Governor’s powers, or for ignoring the fundamental tenets that separate our democracy from failed and oppressive autocratic states arounds the world. 

The First Amendment must be vigorously defended by all elected officials, particularly in times of emergency, when it is the easiest for the government to justify unconstitutional restrictions. I encourage every Kentuckian to continue to demand that our government adhere to the constitution and laws of the Commonwealth, and I look forward to continuing to serve the Commonwealth as your State Treasurer.

Written by Kentucky State Treasurer Allison Ball

October 16, 2020 | 12:06 am

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