Last week, Amy Coney Barrett demonstrated the impact her presence on the Supreme Court will have on the lives of everyday Americans. That includes elevating religious gatherings above public health guidelines, thereby setting a dangerous precedent that is sure to aggravate rising coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths this winter. In her first ruling since her appointment, Barret placed the deciding vote in favor of two New York religious organizations on a case over Covid-19 restrictions put in place by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The majority opined that religious institutions were being unfairly targeted by coronavirus restrictions compared to places where secular activities take place such as bike shops and grocery stores. However, this take fails to consider that the activities conducted in church gatherings are more conducive to Covid-19 transmission than the secular activities they are being compared to.
New York Coronavirus Cases and The Supreme Court Majority Opinion
Earlier this year New York was one of the country’s largest coronavirus epicenters, but strict coronavirus restrictions slowed transmission over the summer while other states saw a surge in cases. This fall, lowering temperatures causing people to move indoors have caused a spike in coronavirus cases throughout the country. Even though the numbers in New York are not as high as in other states, they are still increasing exponentially. The current seven-day average infection rate for New York City is 3.19%, with over 3,000 New Yorkers hospitalized. Cuomo’s order sought to limit in-person attendance in houses of worship to 10 to 25 people depending on rate of infection in that area. In separate concurring opinions, both Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh expressed that religious institutions were being unfairly targeted and “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.” Justice Gorsuch noted that secular activities such as going to a bike shop do not have to abide by the same occupancy limits saying that “(W)e may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack.” He goes on to say, “The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgement that what happens there just isn’t as ‘essential’ as what happens in secular spaces. Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all ‘essential’ while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.” From his comments, it is clear Gorsuch lacks understanding of the conditions that make Covid-19 more transmissible. Religious gathering are rife with such conditions.
The Supreme Court Dissenting Opinion
A lower court explained as much by stating scientific facts on Covid-19 transmission largely ignored by the majority, “Among the other problematic features of religious gatherings, congregants arrive and leave at the same time, physically greet one another, sit or stand close together, share or pass objects, and sing or chant in a way that allows for airborne transmission of the virus.” Justice Sotomayor further reiterates this point “Justice Gorsuch does not even try to square his examples with the conditions medical experts tell us facilitate the spread of COVID-19: large groups of people gathering, speaking, and singing in close proximity indoors for extended periods of time.” As the lower court and Sotomayor explain and researchers at Stanford University have found, places of greatest risk for coronavirus transmission are where indoor gatherings take place, “on average across metro areas, full-service restaurants, gyms, hotels, cafes, religious organizations, and limited-service restaurants produced the largest predicted increases in infections when reported.”
Sotomayor then highlights that contradicting scientific guidelines put upon by health officials to combat a deadly pandemic could have a negative impact on public health “Justices of this Court play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgement of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily.” Chief Justice Roberts observed similarly when he said, “It is a significant matter to override determinations made by public health officials concerning what is necessary for public safety in the midst of a deadly pandemic.” Although the dissenters recognize the need for elevating scientific guidelines during a pandemic, that is a level of scientific literacy their colleagues on the conservative side of the bench apparently lack.
Implications of a Conservative Supreme Court
The court had ruled against religious institutions in similar cases in Nevada and California over the summer, but the key difference was Ruth Bader Ginsburg still occupied the bench. With Barret replacing RBG in the court, this is the first major case where Barret’s conservatism tipped the balance of power. The immediate effects of this case on New York will be negligible since the restrictions had already been lifted by the state. What the 5-4 ruling does do is create a dangerous precedent whereby religious organizations will feel emboldened to protest public health guidelines while their communities continue to be decimated by the virus.
If health officials cite evidence that limiting church attendance could help save lives, shouldn’t our leaders listen? Freedom of religion is an important, fundamental, and hard-fought right, as Justice Gorsuch points out, but do we prioritize that right above all else including public health? I wonder if Gorsuch would feel the same if the death rate was slightly higher, or if those most vulnerable were children instead of the elderly, a population viewed with contempt by many republican leaders, as evidenced by Dan Patrick, the Lt. Gov. of Texas who implied the elderly were expendable if it meant saving the country’s economy. Furthermore, the conservative court’s championship of freedom of religion isn’t homogenous. In 2018, the conservative majority ruled in favor of Trump’s travel ban from majority-Muslin countries. In that case, the majority did not perceive that those countries were being unfairly targeted. This is because of the religion that a majority of their citizens practice. That wasn’t discrimination on the basis of religion according to the court. One can see from these rulings that freedom of religion only applies if it’s a religion conservatives deem deserves to be protected.
Where are we as a society when institutions like the Supreme Court put conservative beliefs over public health science and saving lives? The Court essentially argues that gathering as many people as pews can hold is more important than the well-being of the people in those pews, showcasing their illiteracy in public health science. This callous disregard for scientific guidance from pandemic experts will cost lives, and these five Justices will be directly responsible for those lives, that is a fact. I find it a wonder that people like Barrett can so fecklessly play with people’s lives while a virus rages through the country, yet proport to be outraged by the concept of a women’s right to choose. Is life only precious when you oppress others with your own opinions?
Conservatives care so deeply about humans when they are fetuses. In that case they are willing to impose strict government interference (something they are supposed to be against) on what a woman does with her own body. Once those fetuses become adults, conservatives stop caring whether they live or die. If protection of life is really the issue, then don’t adults deserve the same protection?
This is not to say that New York state’s restrictions were always well guided. Regardless, the Supreme Court should be on the side of public health. Our leaders, including faith leaders, politicians, public health specialists, and justices should be unified in the use of scientific knowledge to end the pandemic. Religious leaders in particular, should be actively siding with officials to promote public health.
The Church and Public Health
Pope Francis commenting on the matter in a Times opinion piece said, “Looking at the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having a regard for all citizens and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate […] It is all too easy for some to take an idea – in this case for example, personal freedom – and turn it into an ideology creating a prism through which they judge everything.” The pope makes an excellent point – many who claim to practice the religion whose church he heads have failed to grasp. However, my question is this: if the pope agrees with promoting public health, why is his diocese fighting against it? Is even the Catholic Church divided amongst themselves on the issue of public health? Presenting a unified front that promotes scientific evidence and urges rational behavior would increase the public’s faith in health guidelines, ensuring that they are followed.
This case displays the ramifications of replacing RBG with Barret on the Supreme Court, creating a conservative ‘supermajority.’ Even though conservatives are a part of the minority party in the United States, their impact in government is profound. And imposing their will on the majority of American citizens who are not in agreement cannot be understated.
Regrettably, they still get elected into positions that keep them in power. Outdated obstacles to democracy like the Electoral College and gerrymandering have allowed that to happen. The only way to break the spell conservatism holds on the public is to elect democratic leaders to office. That starts not only at national races but also at your local school board, city council, and judiciary elections. Getting involved in local politics, joining a political club, volunteering for a campaign are all ways for you to make your voice heard. This gives you power to have a say in the outcome instead of simply getting angry at the results.