JUSTIN Reed Walker, above, a judge nominated by Donald Trump to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, ruled at the weekend in favour of the On Fire Christian Center, a church that that brought a lawsuit against Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer for imposing a social distancing order that banned drive-in church services on Easter.
But here’s a thing: no such ban was ever ordered.
Rather, Fischer’s spokesman clarified last week that police would simply be “discouraging organisers from proceeding,” noting:
This is not a law enforcement matter, it’s a community matter.
Despite this, On Fire pushed ahead with a lawsuit that demanded an injunction that would protect its right to hold drive-in services during Easter. Walker, 38, granted that request on Saturday without even hearing Fischer’s response.
The Senate confirmed Walker’s current position as a US District Court judge for the Western District of Kentucky last October, despite the American Bar Association’s determination that he was “not qualified.”
Walker proved ABA’s point with a ruling that began with a stinging rebuke to mayor Fischer, above:
On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter. That sentence is one that this Court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion. But two days ago, citing the need for social distancing during the current pandemic, Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer ordered Christians not to attend Sunday services, even if they remained in their cars to worship – and even though it’s Easter.
The Mayor’s decision is stunning. And it is, beyond all reason, unconstitutional.
Walker then embarked upon a brief history of religious liberty, beginning with the Bible. He wrote:
According to St. Paul, the first pilgrim was Abel who sought God’s promised kingdom.
He then moved onto the Pilgrims:
Heirs to a long line of persecuted Christians, including some punished with prison or worse for the crime of celebrating Easter.
Following these gratuitous passages, Walker found that the mayor’s attempt to contain the pandemic violated both the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The Christians of On Fire, however, owe no one an explanation for why they will gather together this Easter Sunday to celebrate what they believe to be a miracle and a mystery. True, they can attempt to explain it. True, they can try to teach. But to the nonbeliever, the Passion of Jesus – the betrayals, the torture, the state-sponsored murder of God’s only Son, and the empty tomb on the third day – makes no sense at all. And even to the believer, or at least to some of them, it can be incomprehensible as well.
But for the men and women of On Fire, Christ’s sacrifice isn’t about the logic of this world. Nor is their Easter Sunday celebration. The reason they will be there for each other and their Lord is the reason they believe He was and is there for us. For them, for all believers, it isn’t a matter of reason; finally, it’s a matter of love.
Writing for Slate, Mark Joseph Stern Walker said:
There are several puzzling aspects of this peroration. First, it is unusual for a judge to fill his opinion with overtly sectarian language; Walker’s ruling is more of a sermon than a legal opinion.
Second, the decision comes very close to endorsing Christianity, with its paeans to the Passion and approving citations to Christian theology.
Third, Walker makes a strange distinction between ‘believers’ and ‘nonbelievers’, implying that the latter group simply cannot understand the importance of religious liberty – a jab not just at atheists but at every non-Christian.
But the bigger problem with Walker’s decision is that it never should’ve been issued. He granted the restraining order ex parte, meaning he did not give Fischer an opportunity to respond to On Fire’s charges. After he issued his order, Fischer stated:
‘I regret that the judge did not allow us to present evidence that would have demonstrated there has been no legal enforcement mechanism communicated. We attempted twice to contact the court.’ As South Texas College of Law professor Josh Blackman pointed out, Walker could’ve at least held ‘a 15 minute telephonic status conference’ to learn the real facts. Or he could’ve given the mayor’s office an opportunity to file a brief.
But instead of hearing from both sides to gain a full understanding of the situation, Walker wrote a 22-page decision with 86 footnotes to address an alleged constitutional violation that did not actually exist.