Civil Liberty

As an American citizen, I enjoy certain freedoms that have been baked into our government structure. Although I don’t always feel as free as I would like, for the most part, I enjoy the following civil liberties:

  • Freedom of assembly
  • Freedom of speech
  • Free exercise of religion
  • Equal treatment under the law
  • Right to life
  • Right to due process
  • Right to privacy — specifically, the right to be secure in my person, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures
  • Freedom of expression

Indeed, I’m using that last freedom at the present moment. It is a considerable joy and privilege to live under a government that, for the most part, allows me to live in a state of considerable liberty. I am aware that many people have no such liberty, and I am grateful for what I have been granted.

Several months ago, I decided to build a deck behind my house, using some of the Trex boards that were left over from the front porch renovation project I finished just before Rachel and Tim’s wedding. Admittedly, the back deck will be much larger than what would be needed to use up those boards, but I subscribe to the ‘go big, or go home’ architectural school of deck building.

When I extended the front porch, I researched the local building codes, and determined that a permit was not required, since the additional area was less than 120 square feet, and the deck was less than 30″ off the ground.

I was acutely embarrassed to have this affixed to the front of my house.

I was acutely embarrassed to have this affixed to the front of my house.

Imagine my surprise and dismay when I received a stop work order from the city, threatening me with fines and demanding I procure a permit. After a sleepless night and a consult with the permit office, I submitted the required drawings, paid my fee, and received my permit. The inspectors were gracious, and (with considerable help from some friends) I finished the project. The front porch adorns our house and provides a delightful space to sit outside.

The finished front porch has really improved the 'curb appeal' of our house.

The finished front porch has really improved the ‘curb appeal’ of our house.

This time, I asked the City permit office people if I needed a permit BEFORE I started on the project. It is a firm belief of mine that there is no known historical record of any city building authority on the planet ever admitting that a person does not need a permit, and my experience did nothing to dispel that belief. “Yes, you need a permit,” they told me, “because the structure is more than 120 square feet, and because it affects the egress [sic] of your home.” I have to admit the truth of the first part — I do plan to build a large deck. In the words of my friend, Dan, “It’s the size of New Jersey!” I firmly reject the question of waterfowl, however. We have rabbits, cats, deer, occasional raccoons, but no egrets whatsoever.

I'm sure I would have noticed if a bunch of these birds were hanging around my house.

I’m sure I would have noticed if a bunch of these birds were hanging around my house.

So I began filling out the forms and started planning the deck, based on the packet the building department gave me. I first communicated with them on April 16, and email questions flew back and forth for the next two months. Finally, after hours of drawing and painstaking form completion, I proudly submitted my permit application on June 26. It was rejected on grounds that I failed to adequately describe the ‘prescriptive codes’ associated with each element of my plan. I resubmitted on July 20 after many more hours of re-drawing my plans. It was rejected again, on the same grounds.

Finally, I researched the 2018 International Residential Code which has apparently been adopted by my city (and, indeed, most of the United States). Imagine my surprise to discover that the supporting structure which I had used for my front porch expansion just a few years earlier was entirely obsolete, and the new requirements for a deck are similar to those you would expect for an actual house. So I spent many more hours adding prescriptive code tables to my drawings, and resubmitted on July 23.

This time, the permit application was grudgingly accepted as ‘minimally acceptable’ and a portion of the fee was accepted from me. Tomorrow marks the one-month anniversary of that blessed event, and still I have no permit. The lumber I purchased to build the supporting structure warps quietly on my patio. The two dozen holes I dug for the footings gradually crumble and fill. Yet I hold off on building this deck, submitting to the government’s control and waiting patiently for them to approve (or disapprove) my permit application, as the optimal building season slowly slips away.

A lot of people have asked me, “Tim, why get a permit? The deck is behind your house, how will the City ever know? Why pay more than $1000 for a permit when you can just build it and no one will care?”

I am waiting for the permit for two reasons:

  1. I believe it is right for me to submit to the lawful control of the government in this case. I don’t like it, and I wish I lived somewhere that allowed homeowners more latitude in improving their property, but the State of Washington has many such laws designed to protect the citizens from each other, and it doesn’t violate any of my foundational liberties. In a time when the right to life is denied to unborn children, and the right to privacy is being radically redefined by multinational corporations, I think a minor bureaucratic overreach is the least of my worries.
  2. If I don’t submit to the government, I will almost certainly be caught. I have found that God keeps me on a really short leash in these kind of things (which is a huge blessing, when you think about it).

As far as I know, my local building permit office doesn’t dispatch people to drive around looking for permit violators. I live on a double-ended cul-de-sac, which means we get almost zero pass-through traffic. It seems likely that someone on my street must have called in and reported the work I was doing on my front porch. I suspect that the same unknown person, whether an enemy or simply a busybody, would call in this work as well. As a Christian, I am held to a higher standard by God than ‘normal’ non-believers, especially since He knows that I really struggle to submit to authority. I am a slow learner, but I eventually do pick up on these things.

One of the things that really DOES get me riled up is when the government overreaches in their control of the Church. The current situation in Washington is that our Governor has placed severe restrictions on the exercise of religion here, under the guise of attempting to protect people from the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, the State does not have the authority to abridge the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as stated in section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

And of course, the part of the law that protects our liberty to freely exercise religion is found in the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I don’t think you have to be a legal scholar to see that the Governor has overreached State authority and is actively infringing on the First Amendment rights of citizens to assemble and to freely exercise religion. With his proscriptions against churches meeting indoors, against churches meeting as a complete body, and against praising God without being muffled by masks, our Governor has placed himself in opposition to the first and fourteenth amendments of the Constitution, and it is the right and responsibility of citizens to resist and peacefully disobey his illegal edicts. Indeed, the President has pledged the resources of the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney General to defend these rights from encroachment.

Do I think that COVID-19 is contagious? Yes. Do I think the Church should make an effort to protect its vulnerable from this disease? Yes.

Do I think the Lord is honored when we meekly submit to draconian efforts to quarantine an entire country, disobeying His instructions ‘to meet together’ (Hebrews 10:25)? No, I don’t think He is honored by this cowardly behavior.

In the United States, you have about a 1 in 1875 chance of dying from COVID-19 this year, assuming you accept the statistics that have been published (I don’t, but more on that in a later post). As a frame of reference, you are thirty-four times more likely to get into a significant auto accident than you are to die from COVID this year. Of course, if you are young or healthy, or don’t live in a nursing home, the odds go way down. In my opinion, attempting to prevent COVID deaths by closing churches is like requiring everyone to move around in wheelchairs for fear that someone might be injured by falling. But even if there was a direct cause and effect relationship between going to church and dying of COVID, I would still advocate church attendance. People all over the world, throughout history, have risked their lives to obey God; why should Americans be coddled in 2020?

It is a delicate subject. People have over-reacted, whether in buying up toilet paper or cowering in their homes for months on end. And there are certainly some who have foolishly and callously disregarded the vulnerabilities of others.

My local grocery store bread aisle, in response to a simple snow storm in 2019.

My local grocery store bread aisle, in response to a simple snow storm in 2019.

Many medical professionals advocate the ‘social distancing’ restrictions and use of masks out of abundance of care for the vulnerable, and some will take offense at my words in this post. But I would make these three final points:

  1. After all these months, we still know very little about how this disease spreads, what the effective death rate is, how best to treat it, or if immunity can be achieved. It is very presumptuous for anyone to make dogmatic claims of one treatment or prevention technique, claiming that ‘science’ backs them up. Truth is, you can find ‘science’ in the form of statistics and clinical trials on every side of this argument.
  2. There is a huge, not yet fully-realized cost to these massive attempts to quarantine the healthy. Suicide numbers (which are typically about 1/4 the number of COVID deaths this year) are on the rise. Child abuse reports have ominously dropped, while alcohol consumption has skyrocketed. Needed critical medical procedures have been delayed or canceled, even though we lose eight times more people to heart disease and cancer than we have to COVID, every year. Considering the long-term correlation between economic status and health, it seems likely that more lives will be needlessly lost or curtailed to our misguided quarantining efforts than will actually be lost to COVID.
  3. God’s word requires all true believers to gather together as His Church, and requires us to praise Him loudly and joyfully. Whatever the cost, I believe I must obey God, rather than men.


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