Former Whitewater independent counsel Ken Starr spoke Friday about his new book, “Religious Liberty In Crisis” in an interview on “Your World with Neil Cavuto.”
Starr, an attorney by trade, told Cavuto that the governmental lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic stripped people in many areas from their power to exercise organized religion freely, or at least restricted it somewhat.
He contrasted today’s political leaders’ view of religious liberty with that of the Founders, whom he noted invoked such freedoms in almost everything they did.
“We have huge problems. The founding generation had a benevolent view of the role of faith in American life. The very first Congress, the same Congress that passed the First Amendment and presented to the states for debate and ratification also passed the Northwest Ordinance to govern Ohio and Indiana….”
“Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged,” Starr said, quoting the ordinance governing the then-territories of today’s Midwest.
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“That was the law of the land but it also reflected the first two words, religion and morality, as well as education and knowledge, are necessary to human happiness. The country doesn’t seem to be particularly happy right now. Does that have something to do? I happen to think it does with the decline in social life and community life and also frankly churches, synagogues losing membership in so many parts of the country.”
Starr pointed to several cases of religious freedom being under siege from political leaders and noted that in most cases today and throughout history, the U.S. Supreme Court has been the arbiter that restores Americans’ right to worship.
He noted the high court’s rebuke of New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who sought to restrict Christmas and Hanukkah worship. Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the 5-4 majority that included all proverbial conservative justices except John Roberts Jr., said Cuomo kept businesses open that were deemed “essential” while holding houses of worship to a different standard.
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“Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?” the Trump nominee wrote.
Starr also pointed to Nevada, where Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak closed churches but allowed casinos to remain open. When a congregation attempted to worship inside a casino as a potential loophole, Sisolak balked and fined the church for doing so.
In a similar June 2020 Supreme Court case, the bench’s liberal justices plus Roberts sided against a church called Calvary Chapel. In dissent, Gorsuch wrote that there is “no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesar’s Palace” over a church.
“We have to educate ourselves, the citizens, and not just cry against the heavens and say oh, the sky is falling — rather to look to the Supreme Court of the United States for the great principles,” Starr said on Fox News. “They didn’t invent them. These are principles that are embedded in our constitutional order and principles of freedom, including autonomy of religious institutions including churches and church schools.”
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In response, Cavuto noted that the “damage has been done” in the public square to religion during the pandemic, as some houses of worship and parochial schools have closed their doors permanently.
“It happened so suddenly, so a lot of damage culturally, legally, unconstitutionally was inflicted. Obviously we are deeply concerned about this horrible pandemic that has taken so many American lives and across the globe. But did we go too far? The answer is yes,” replied Starr.
Starr noted that it was at times religious organizations and people of faith that stepped up during the worst of the pandemic to help their fellow Americans.
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Last year, Rev. Franklin Graham and his North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse organization set up a COVID ward in New York City’s Central Park to help with the state hardest hit by the pandemic.
“We need leadership from the pastors, the clergy persons that are willing to stand up and be courageous and say hey, we get to stay open and we want to continue to serve the people of our community,” Starr said.