And the People Shouted Hallelujah

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In a bold move last week, President Donald Trump announced that his administration would seek to immediately reopen houses of worship across the country.

Next came an order to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to classify churches, synagogues, and mosques as “essential places that provide essential services.”

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” President Trump said in the White House press room, punctuating his statement with the words, “It’s not right.”

“The people are demanding to go to their church and synagogue, to go to their mosque,” the president said, adding that in America “we need more prayer, not less.”

Spirituality, by virtue of its existence, is essential. In America, its manifestation has historically been safeguarded by the words contained in our inspired foundational document.

Hard to believe that we could ever have been denied the necessity of the soul.

President Trump had another message for officials who have little sense of urgency and seem content to delay indefinitely when it comes to allowing houses of worship to reopen.

“If they don’t do it, I will override the governors,” the president said.

His remarks have been mischaracterized by the Democrats and the antagonistic media from the moment they were uttered. Many of the same partisan organizations and individuals show little or no regard for a paramount constitutional right—the free exercise of religion.

Some of the so-called experts have weighed in, indicating that President Trump does not have the authority to override governors who are dragging their feet on the reopening of religious institutions.

As head of the executive branch, the president maintains the authority to utilize the Department of Justice (DOJ) to accomplish the objective of securing the cooperation of the governors.

Among the many options, lawsuits can be filed and judges can impose limitations on the actions of governors who are in violation of federal and/or state constitutions. Attorney General William Barr has already demonstrated that he is willing to enter the fray of legal challenges to governors’ orders.

The free exercise of religion is included in our First Amendment precisely because the founders understood the essential nature of religious liberty. To ever have given houses of worship a “non-essential” label not only runs counter to the First Amendment, but it has the potential to hinder a primary life process in which an individual and/or groups engage, particularly in times of distress or anxiety.

Our country’s first president would have been on board with our current president in understanding the necessity for spirituality and religious expression.

As shown in Arnold Friberg’s famous painting “The Prayer at Valley Forge,” the image of then-General George Washington on his knees has inspired Americans since the work of art was first unveiled in 1976, the year of our nation’s bicentennial.

As the story goes, a young Pennsylvania senator named Isaac Potts was against the war that gave birth to America. His opposition would not last long, though.

One day he happened upon a man who was immersed in deep prayer. At his side a sword lay placid on the ground. The solitary figure turned out to be General Washington himself, asking the Almighty to assist him in his cause of emancipating a nascent country.

Reflecting on the prayer, Potts became convinced that the American Revolution “was the cause of God, and America could prevail.”

President George Washington would later say, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

Perhaps much like something President Washington would have said if faced with the same circumstances, President Trump let governors and officials across the land know that religious institutions, and the worship services they provide, play an essential role.

He has spoken for the searchers whose life-sustaining spirituality is, and always will be, essential.

And the people shouted hallelujah.

‘Essential’ Faith

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At a time when folks are struggling to come to grips with grave illnesses, economic hardships, logistic challenges, and imposed isolation, faith has become an “essential” in the battle against the “invisible enemy.”

But worship communities that have been trying to follow government regulations and guidelines have suddenly found themselves under attack in several parts of the country.

It appears as though various state and local officials, who may or may not hold a different view of religious worship than their fervent faith counterparts, are using current coronavirus-related circumstances to target people who are participating in worship in safe and responsible ways.

The free exercise of religion is an absolute fundamental right endowed by the same Creator to whom the aforementioned worship is directed. This free exercise of religion is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

In simple yet eloquent words, the text of the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Recently, however, just prior to the pinnacle Christian celebration of Easter, several state and local officials took some aggressive steps in which they attempted to limit, and in some cases, even ban people from engaging in worship.

Thankfully, Attorney General William Barr has been paying close attention to the issue and is poised to intervene.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) notified state and local officials who had been involved in the banning of religious services and informed them that the DOJ was not going to sit back and allow the coronavirus pandemic to be used as an opportunity to target worshipers.

DOJ Director of Communications Kerri Kupec tweeted, “During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services. While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!”

The most blatant examples of overzealous government action have come against churches that were utilizing drive-in services, i.e., those in which congregants remained inside their own vehicles during church services.

Over this past Easter weekend in a supposed effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, tried to ban such drive-in church services. For those who still value common sense, the overly broad action taken by the mayor was outrageous.

Folks who remain on the inside of their respective vehicles during worship services are actually safer than many of those who engage in so-called official “essential” activity.

The Fischer order singled out church-goers in cars who were merely sitting in the parking lot. Meanwhile people in vehicles all over the place lined up at drive-throughs of fast food restaurants, banks, pharmacies, and the like. Double standard like no other.

“It’s not really practical or safe to accommodate drive-up [church] services taking place in our community,” the mayor said in defense of his ban.

Claiming that if he allowed drive-in religious services, there would be “hundreds of thousands of people” driving around the community.

On Fire Christian Church, which is located in Louisville, Kentucky, sued Fischer and the city, alleging that the mayor’s action against the drive-in religious services was unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Justin Walker agreed, issuing a temporary restraining order against the mayor’s order.

“On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter,” Judge Walker wrote.

Kentucky is a hotspot when it comes to interfering with the free exercise of religion. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear went so far as to announce that the government would be tracking the license plates of any individuals attending Easter services and would subsequently mandate the owners of the vehicles to be quarantined for fourteen days.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul denounced Beshear’s dictate. In a post on Twitter, Sen. Paul stated, “Taking license plates at church? Quarantining someone for being Christian on Easter Sunday? Someone needs to take a step back here.”

Similar to Louisville, two churches in Greenville, Mississippi had to contend with police officers who arrived at their drive-in services and threatened to levy fines on worshipers of $500.

“We were abiding by the CDC guidelines,” Rev. James Hamilton of the King James Baptist Church said, during an appearance on Fox News’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

“Members of the church were inside their cars, had their windows up, and I was preaching the Word of God. So no one was outside, and also we had cars at a distance,” the reverend added.

Apparently, Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons had issued an executive order that targeted churches in a selective manner.

As Judge Walker wrote in the Louisville case, “…if sitting in cars did pose a significant danger of spreading the virus, Louisville would close all drive-throughs and parking lots that are not related to maintaining public health, which they haven’t done.”

At this critical time in America, the free exercise of religion is in greater need of protection than just about any other moment in modern history.

Thankfully, this Easter season has demonstrated it’s not faith that’s in short supply. It’s politicians who are willing to honor the Constitution.

Jeff Bezos’s Extortion Claim May Go Nowhere

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Founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, entered the political arena about six years ago with his purchase of The Washington Post.

American Media, Inc. (AMI) is the company that owns The National Enquirer, which is the media outlet that recently revealed Bezos was involved in an extramarital affair. The Enquirer story appeared a day after Bezos announced that he and his wife of 25 years were getting a divorce.

The story exposed Bezos’s affair with Lauren Sanchez, who is a former host of Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” News of the affair changed public perception of Bezos, particularly with regard to his image as a CEO.

After suffering some embarrassment as a result of the story, Bezos unveiled a surprising blog post, which accused AMI of extortion. According to Bezos, in an email sent by the company’s lawyer, AMI threatened to publish texts and compromising photographs of Bezos, which included pictures of his male anatomy, if he did not publicly state that the tabloid’s reporting on his affair was not motivated by political concerns. Ironically, the lawyer who wrote the email is a former Amazon employee.

David Pecker is the CEO of AMI, and he is known to be an associate and friend of President Donald Trump. In the aforementioned blog post, Bezos made it a point to mention President Trump and cited ways that the president and Pecker had cooperated in the past.

Apparently, Bezos has been stung by the president’s tweets about his newspaper.

“It’s unavoidable that certain powerful people who experience Washington Post news coverage will wrongly conclude I am their enemy,” Bezos wrote. “President Trump is one of those people, obvious by his many tweets.”

Bezos has now put together a team of prominent lawyers and crisis managers to assist him in his public tug-of-war. The team includes high-profile figures such as Hollywood lawyer Martin Singer, who in 2005 represented Bill Cosby over potential Enquirer articles that detailed sexual assault allegations made against Cosby.

Attorney Jonathan Sherman, who previously represented AMI, is part of Bezos’s team and is with the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner. Partner of the firm David Boies defended Harvey Weinstein against sexual harassment and abuse accusations.

An additional team member is security specialist Gavin de Becker, who worked with public figures such as Olivia Newton-John, Cher, and former President Ronald Reagan.

If the email is taken at face value, it appears as though AMI’s lawyer offered to forego the publishing of material that would be embarrassing to Bezos in exchange for a public statement from Bezos that would benefit AMI. Based on a superficial read, the subject of criminal extortion has been repeatedly featured in media discussions.

Citing anonymous sources, reports have surfaced claiming that federal prosecutors are looking into the extortion claim.

The allegation in question is that AMI, via its lawyer, communicated to Bezos during settlement discussions that it possessed embarrassing texts and photographs, and conveying that if Bezos did not settle with AMI the company intended to go forward and publish the material.

The communication was made by a Deputy General Counsel for AMI and purportedly followed an email from AMI’s Chief Content Officer that had described in detail the texts and photographs.

In analyzing this email, it is important to focus on the context within which both parties are seeking to settle a dispute.

In settlement negotiations, it is common practice for the parties to propose that each side will release the other from any potential claims. This is what was communicated through its legal counsel in the subject email by AMI, along with a proposal that Bezos would agree to tell the public that AMI’s coverage of Bezos was not politically motivated. In return, AMI would agree not to publish the texts and photographs.

Outside of the settlement discussion context, criminal extortion would exist in a case such as this if money was demanded as payment for not making public an embarrassing secret. However, in this instance the key difference revolves around the settlement backdrop.

Why would the two sides be negotiating a settlement? It is clear that Bezos has been raising potential civil legal claims against AMI, while AMI has suggested that Bezos’s Washington Post planned to publish a false news story about AMI.

These cross assertions are arguably the basis for both parties to be pursuing a settlement of their respective claims. A settlement agreement would mutually release the claims of both parties.

Typically such agreements contain non-disclosure provisions stipulating that neither side will disparage the other, particularly when both sides are publishers. The argument of AMI as a criminal extortion defendant would be as follows: the texts and emails in question were an essential part of the settlement negotiations and were necessary to establish an incentive for Bezos to negotiate.

Prosecutors would have an uphill battle in attempting to use these facts as a basis for a criminal extortion case. Additionally, the First Amendment creates further problems for the prosecution, since Bezos is a very well known influential public figure and a power player in Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., and Hollywood.

Since Amazon moved forcefully into the entertainment business, Bezos is often seen at award shows and red carpet events. His life choices can have an on one of the largest companies in the world and one of the most influential news outlets in the nation. Despite its inherent unseemly nature, this story is, in fact, a newsworthy one that most current news outlets would run with if given the opportunity.

Furthermore, in the Michael Cohen case AMI entered into a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, agreeing to cooperate in exchange for not being subjected to prosecution. The agreement was conditioned on the company not getting into trouble legally for a period of three years.

Bezos’s team is well aware that, if it were determined that AMI broke the law, the company would potentially be in violation of the agreement. However, if there is no prosecutable crime, there seemingly would be no impact on the non-prosecution agreement.

Much of the analysis and reporting on the latest chapter in the Bezos saga illustrates the hunger on the part of many in the mainstream press for anything that can be weaponized against the president and used to ratchet down his poll numbers.