Freedom of Assembly
On May 1, 2020, my wife and I flew to Sacramento, California, to pray for our state and to demonstrate our right to peaceably assemble and stand up for what we knew was an abomination to God. Nearly 2,000 others joined us in a peaceful patriotic assembly on the steps and the lawn of our state capitol. Many carried posters or flags, and we took a backpack of food, water, and sunscreen, since we anticipated a day with no provisions otherwise.
In California the churches, parks, beaches, restaurants, sports arenas, stadiums, theme parks, concerts, and all other gathering places had been shut down, with no plans to open them in the near future. On Passover, during Holy Week, and even on Easter (Resurrection) Sunday there were no gatherings of God’s people anywhere close to where I lived, with the exception of the pop-up, drive-in church my wife and I had started in an office parking lot four weeks earlier. As a result of the unprecedented church closings and my witnessing of the lack of pastors willing to stand up to their First Amendment rights, my call as an ordained pastor had been shaken to the core. Under the guise of protecting of our physical health, the government, without due process, closed down our houses of worship, and only the faithful who knew how to use a computer and had Internet in their homes, and knew how to link together, met virtually. (Had my parents been alive, they would have been excluded, since they had no computer skills and thus had no Internet in their home.) It troubled me greatly to think about how many seniors must have been, and are being, excluded from the churches they’ve spent their lives building.
So on that first Sunday in May, while other states were starting to have church meetings and open their businesses, and after I heard my state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, announce that there would be no large gatherings until 2021, I was compelled, without a doubt, to go to Sacramento and let my voice be heard. After seven weeks of this lockdown and these tyrannical religious restrictions, I was compelled to attend this call of distress to support my constitutional right to gather and worship.
We had arrived at the capitol around 11:30 for the call to freedom, which was scheduled to begin at noon. There were a few Highway Patrol officers standing around, but nothing alarming or unexpected. Imagine everyone’s shock when during the next 30 minutes more and more officers kept arriving as they lined up circling the entire property of the capitol. By 12:30 there were hundreds of “guards,” California Highway Patrol officers who were fully armed and ready. Keep in mind that at no time was there anything alarming or violent. At no time was anyone doing anything inappropriate, unethical, or outside the law. The only thing people were doing was exercising their right to assemble. . . .
My wife and I spent most of our time around the boat and around our friend, Leigh. She was the one who had invited us, and we felt a loyalty to her. We mingled around the group of people, venturing back and forth toward the front steps of the capitol. Since this was our first time doing anything like this, we also felt somewhat unsure about what was going on as tensions started to build as more and more armed guards appeared. There were lots and lots of young women and men with children, including babies in strollers, and several people came out toward us with a warning that the heat was rising, and they felt a need to move back.
Suddenly, around 1:00 p.m. the front doors of the capital burst open, and nearly 100 California Highway Patrol officers, in full riot gear, stormed out with batons in their hands and shields on their face, and powered toward the crowd as they created a human barricade. (They had obviously been practicing this maneuver for some time.) And this was the California Highway Patrol! This force was created to patrol the highways of California, not to protect the California capitol. What were they doing practicing crowd control and establishing riot protocol? I would have expected that to be the job of the Sacramento Police Department or the County Sheriff, not the Highway Patrol. Who was doing their job? Who was patrolling our highways? What were they doing with this kind of military-style training? . . .
For the next 30 to 45 minutes they pushed everyone off of the capitol steps and lawn, and took into custody nearly 40 people, including women and children, all for no apparent reason. By the time they were done, all who were left were standing on the sidewalk by Leigh’s boat. At this point in time the Highway Patrol commandeered by standing on a raised, flowerbed/wall. They stood there, on top of the wall, as a show of power and to prove that they were in control. I looked at my wife, and we both starting crying at this surreal experience in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” . . .
In the name of health we have rolled over and allowed this to happen. . . . What has happened to our constitutional rights?
As this day’s experience was coming to a close, we stood on the sidewalk in front of Leigh’s boat, with cries of “Freedom,” “God Bless the USA,” and other exhortations still being sung, shouted, echoing through the once-filled state property. We were now staring almost face to face at the Highway Patrol lined up on the four-foot-tall wall when a young man, a former marine, now a doctor, took a megaphone and started moralizing to the men and women facing us in full riot gear just a few feet away. They were now just standing there, no longer pushing, hitting, and arresting U.S. citizens who were exercising their rights. Their adrenaline was shutting down. They had done what they had been commanded to do. They had done their job. Now this young man with the megaphone started telling them what they had done. He reminded them that they had made a pledge to protect the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic. He reminded them that they had to look in the mirror and ask themselves what they had done today. He told them that he was a dad and that he would go back to his wife and kids at the end of the day and hug them. He asked them what they were going to tell their children . . . that they had handcuffed an innocent 15-year-old girl? That they were tough guys and had hit small innocent people and that they had singled out and arrested a pastor? He implored them to exercise their civil rights and to just walk away. He told them they had a moral obligation to walk away. As he continued to talk them down, many heads started to drop in shame. Some turned and walked away. On and on he lectured them, his words very powerful and profound. Within 10 minutes they had all left the wall.
By 3:00 p.m. most of the crowd had dissipated. We left the property and found an open grocery store, where we bought some sandwiches and returned to dine on a park bench across the street. It was around 4:00 p.m.
As we sat there eating, we saw some of those who had been arrested and detained earlier. Stunned and dismayed, they made their way to their families and friends. My wife ran after one young girl who appeared to be shaken to her core. She brought her to our picnic area as the young woman shared through her tears about being struck on the leg with a baton. She was about 25 years old and about five feet tall. She told us all she had done was shelter a mother who was nursing her baby on the capitol lawn when the troopers stormed them. She was in shock, and she was shaking and crying as she shared with us. This young woman was there because she is a hairdresser. No work. No income. No expectation of getting back to work for weeks or months or even this year.
Prayer is the answer to getting our country back. Back to work, back to normal, and back to church.
This report from Robert Schuller was shared by the Rev. Bill Owens on the website for the Coalition of African American Pastors, self-described as “a grassroots movement of Christians who believe in traditional family values in American public life.” He wrote: “Around the country we've seen governors shut down religious freedom as part of their lockdown orders. Sometimes the orders single out churches and churchgoers while allowing other organizations and facilities a pass. Now people are beginning to stand up and protest these measures. I asked our friend, Dr. Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral, to write a little about his experience protesting for religious freedom. . . . I want to thank Dr. Schuller for sharing his experience with us. . . . I hope you will join me in praying for our country and for our freedom.”Initially there was uncertainty among Christians and other faiths about how to respond to general COVID-19 restrictions that while apparently necessary and neutral to religion, curiously failed to include religious services and activities as “essential services.” When secular demonstrations were actually encouraged in some states by authorities who continued to restrict religious gatherings, many people of faith were troubled, to say the least. Later, in a June 26 ruling, a federal judge held that New York could not limit religious gatherings while it allowed mass public protests. While it is difficult to make much of a case for calculated restriction of religion in this crisis, it does illustrate how easily freedoms can disappear and how sensitive we must remain to the religious rights of others in what we intend to remain a free democracy. Lincoln Steed, Liberty editor.