Governor Baker, Don’t Do This

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On Sunday morning a Baptist pastor plans to hold a church service in Worcester for about 40 people.

If we’re reading the pronouncements coming out of Worcester City Hall correctly, sometime early next week the pastor will be charged with a crime, brought to court, and possibly sent to jail.

Governor Charlie Baker:  You can stop it.

And you must.

Yes, the pastor has violated your executive order limiting public gatherings to 10 people. Yes, you apparently believe that your order is necessary to try to keep people from getting sick. At this point, you probably also believe that your order must be enforced, whether it’s right or not.

But look at the facts. The pastor has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the physical safety of his people:  sanitizing the church at much cost in time and money; checking the temperature of people who enter the building; requiring masks and gloves; enforcing social distancing.

Do you do any more than this at the Massachusetts State House?

Your response, perhaps, is that what you do there is essential. Well, that’s Pastor Kris Casey’s response, too. You tend to the material well-being of the people of the state. He tends to souls.

This is an inflection point of your time as governor. What happens to the pastor in Worcester will help determine how people remember you.

Don’t imagine that you can pass responsibility to the Democratic city officials in Worcester who are issuing the fines and who may yet order the arrest of Pastor Casey. Worcester’s city manager, Edward M. Augustus Jr., a former state senator who knows his way around politics, is carefully laying the just-following-orders framework at your feet.

It may be a Worcester bureaucrat who orders Worcester police to bring the pastor before a Worcester District Court judge … but whatever happens will be attributed to you.

Don’t be fooled by your high poll numbers in the midst of the coronavirus emergency. You are a popular governor, and people tend to rally around their leaders in a time of crisis, especially if they like them to begin with.

But popularity is fleeting. At the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, President George H.W. Bush’s favorability rating was 89 percent. A little more than a year and a half later, about a month before the election he lost, it was 29.

Popularity is also not what public life is about. At its best, it’s about serving your neighbors and doing the right thing.

On that point …

We disagree with several of your decisions during this emergency as bad for the economy, bad for public health, and bad for freedom. But up to now, your decisions have been made under duress – often with insufficient facts and varying plausible points of view. People in the future may conclude that you did the best you could by the lights you had at the time, even if some of your decisions turn out badly.

This pastor situation, though, seems like a mistake in slow motion.

It doesn’t have to go down this way.

If you’re determined to enforce your order limiting gatherings (against science and common sense, by the way), so be it. Tell the Worcester officials to continue issuing fines, which the pastor can then fight in court or perhaps use private donations to pay.

But if the pastor is arrested and thrown in jail during an infectious-disease emergency – at a time when bad guys all over the country are being released from jail – it will be hard to live that down. You will be remembered as a persecutor of Christians.

If the pastor should get sick while in jail …

Don’t let it get to that point.

The best way to deal with an indelible stain is to prevent it from happening in the first place.