When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, On Fire Church in Louisville, Kentucky stopped public gatherings but continued holding services in their parking lot, where people sat in their cars listening to the service over a low frequency FM. This eliminated any human contact and complied with CDC regulations.
However, a couple of days before Easter, Louisville mayor Greg Fischer ordered all churches to stop public gatherings including parking lot services and threatened to record the license plates of any who attended.
When, On Fire decided to hold its Easter service in the parking lot as usual, First Liberty, a legal nonprofit dedicated to preserving religious freedom, went to the courts arguing Fischer’s order was unconstitutional and won a temporary restraining order against the city.
According to the Daily Caller, in his decision U.S. District Court Judge Justin Walker also compared the Mayor’s order to a dystopian society:
“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.”
As believers we have legal rights, as did the Apostle Paul who used those rights to avoid unlawful prosecution. Three times Paul used his Roman citizenship when in legal trouble:
- Acts 16:37-39 to secure his and Silas’ release from a Philippi jail.
- Acts 22:22-29 to seek a Roman guard’s protection when Paul was attacked by an angry crowd. In this passage Paul says he was born a Roman citizen.
- Acts 25:7-12 to appeals for a trial at a Roman court avoiding execution.
A Roman citizenship was a coveted prize and one of Paul’s parents (possibly both) must have been granted this citizenship that was then passed down to their children. It is uncertain how Paul’s parents received Roman citizenship, but there were several ways for non-citizens to receive this including providing valuable service to Rome and even bribery.
There were four levels of citizenship in Rome, the top was Roman citizen, the second was Latin, the third non citizens and the fourth slaves, with each group having more rights than the one below it.
A Roman citizen had multiple privileges. You could enter politics and own property. It granted you the right to appeal lower court decisions and receive preferred treatment in sentencing. This was something Paul referred to in Acts 22, when he asked if it was lawful for them to whip a Roman citizen particularly if he is uncondemned.
“Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25 ESV)
The response of the magistrates to Paul’s claim indicated that they had crossed a line in their treatment of the Apostle.
So the Apostle Paul had rights and invoked them when needed.