Several major cities across the United States are issuing directives that are raising eyebrows of liberty lovers. From closing public beaches to filling in skate-parks with dirt to issuing citations of people violating social distancing orders, these municipalities are pushing the limits of constitutionality. However, most of these major metropolitan centers are suffering as coronavirus hotspots. But oddly enough, one very rural county in Montana is taking draconian steps that far surpass those of most urban population centers.
Carter County, located in the bottom right corner of the Big Sky State, is the fifth-least populated county in Montana. With only 1,300 residents, the county has a population density of less than one person per square mile, already “socially distanced” by most standards. The closest coronavirus case is hundreds of miles away. Even in neighboring South Dakota, a border shared by Carter County, still hasn’t issued a shelter-in-place directive, something castigated by the state’s governor as close to unconstitutional.
Governor Noem stated, “Our constitution ensures the citizens’ right is protected. I agree with the role of government set forth in our state and in our national constitution. I took an oath to uphold these constitutions…”
But the rurality, low-risk, and no coronavirus cases in Carter County haven’t kept its health department officials from engaging in an over-the-top response that surpasses the measures taken by even most of the largest and most crowded cities in the nation.
The Montana Daily Gazette has been frequently contacted by many of the county’s residents who tell tales of infringements of religious, commerce, and basic civil liberties by two of the county’s health officials, Raquel Williams, the public health nurse, and Dale Diede.
One of the more severe allegations against the Carter County Health Department is that they are calling homes, and in some cases knocking on residents’ doors, to ask who is visiting and why they’re there. When they are determined to be out of town, they are cautioned to quarantine themselves and not get out.
The Gazette confirmed this practice with Raquel Williams, who told us that they had contacted those who have homes in Ekalaka but stay part of their time in other places, informing them of their duty to quarantine, as well as contacting college students who came home as the coronavirus panic first set in. Some residents have told the Gazette they were told not to come home.
When asked if they had records of who might have traveled recently, Williams told the Gazette, “It’s a small town, so we know pretty much everybody.”
One resident spoke out to the Gazette on the condition of anonymity. The octogenarian and life-long resident of Ekalaka said, “We’re all scared. We’re scared of what they’re going to do next. We don’t know when we’re going to get a call from them asking who’s at our house or how long they’ll be staying or where they’re from. We don’t know when they’re going to knock on our door and demand to know who’s in the driveway.”
Another individual, a local pastor, said the churches were ordered closed regardless of the precautions they had in place. The health department was making the demands, which they called “requests” at the time, even before the stay-at-home order was officially in place, something bragged about by a Carter County Sheriff Department employee, off-record.
Other states with large populations and many coronavirus outbreaks, like Texas and Flordia, have specified that religious gatherings fall under the “essential services” terminology of their various orders. Although Texas’ Governor Abbot first didn’t explicitly exclude churches from the gathering ban, he later specified he didn’t think it was necessary because everyone knows there’s a First Amendment right. Such common sense doesn’t seem to be found in the Carter County Health Department.
The pastor agreed for an interview with the Gazette but was very careful out of concern for his community and neighborliness not to be loose with his words, as well as to not speak for his congregation as a whole. He did confirm the churches had been ordered closed and were told, “We can do this voluntarily or else we can do it forcefully.”
When asked the problem with the draconian orders, the pastor stated, “There are two big factors. Number one, we have a Biblical mandate. The word ‘mandate’ is being thrown around a lot, and some are with and some without authority. We have, as a Body of Christ, a mandate to meet. A church is an assembly. An assembly can’t be an assembly if it doesn’t assemble. We have a mandate from our Lord to be in fellowship. Christ makes that a priority, and so we must make that a priority. There are situations where for a brief time it would be irresponsible to continue to have service. We’re not opposed to taking a week off here or there if the situation called for it. But in our community, it doesn’t call for it. I am a lawful citizen as are the other members of our board, but our responsibilities to God supersede our responsibility to the state.”
The pastor explained that his congregation’s religion, which is anchored in the Bible, requires certain things like corporate worship, corporate prayer, communion, and baptism, which can’t be done virtually no matter the advance of modern technology.
The pastor continued, “The second factor is our constitutional liberties. Rarely are our liberties violated when things are going smoothly. It’s our responsibility as citizens and believers to stand up and defend those liberties, in particular, the First Amendment. Because I love God and love to worship him publicly and openly, I’m willing to defend that liberty to do so.”
Most astoundingly, Ekalaka’s grocery store was threatened with closure on Friday. Residents contacted the Gazette after it was reported the Branson Grocery Store was reportedly closed briefly (there are varying accounts, depending upon who you talk to).
Raquel Williams reported this was accurate, stating, “There was a bit of miscommunication. We allowed the store to re-open after certain protections were in place. We’re allowing them to have no more than four shoppers at a time. Hand sanitizer has to be provided. They have to be spaced out six feet between customers.”
Williams made a statement on Facebook (now deleted) about the threatened closure (pictured below).
What was for Williams a “miscommunication” was for many residents anything but. Reportedly, the health department backed off of the measure after calls were placed to county commissioners and others.
One resident told the Gazette, “Where do they think we’re going to get food? They don’t want us to leave the county. If we do, Raquel or Dale are going to be down here asking where we’ve been. Most of us are senior citizens and can’t even get out far. And now they close our grocery store?”
The measures put into place by Williams and Diede in regard to Branson Grocery Store far surpass that of other measures in place throughout Montana, and even in large cities across the United States. And it absolutely surpasses any government mandate issued by Montana’s Governor Bullock.
When asked if the county sheriff was enforcing the mandates decreed by health department officials, Williams confirmed they had issued some warnings.
The Montana Gazette reached out to the Carter County Sheriff’s Department and spoke to Disaster Emergency Coordinator, Georgia Bruski, who spoke off the record. It was confirmed, however, the store had been threatened with closure and reopened on Saturday morning. According to Bruski, residents have been “cooperative.” With heavy-handed threats, it is no wonder.
A response requested from the Carter County sheriff, Neil Kittelmann, will leave some liberty-minded persons scratching their heads. The Gazette asked Kittelmann to be forthright about the extent he will go to enforce mandates that surpass Bullock’s orders, issued by non-elected health department officials.
When asked why he is enforcing standards that surpass those required by the state, Kittelmann said, “I follow my health director’s orders.”
The sheriff did admit the store closure was improperly handled, saying, “This whole thing with the store is a cluster from the get-go. I got in the middle of it. I’m telling them just to follow the directives given.”
Whether or not the orders are constitutional or even legal seem to be a moot point for Sheriff Kittelmann who said, “[The health department] can tell us what to do and if not, we can be charged with a misdemeanor. The health-nurse has all the power.”
When asked directly if the First Amendment still existed in Carter County, the Sheriff said, “A whole bunch of stuff goes out the window in an emergency. I would think common sense tells you our rights go away.”
Not all the residents of Ekalaka and the surrounding countryside of Carter County agree. A resident told the Gazette, “We are terrified of our officials. They literally are letting an unelected couple of bureaucrats take our liberties. And they’re sitting around proud of themselves for protecting Carter County like it were San Francisco or New York. I don’t feel protected. I feel violated.”