The Supreme Court of the United States has just rendered an unbelievable judgment. It has decided 5-4 that New York state legislators cannot limit religious assemblies during a pandemic. In blunter terms, it has decided that religious organizations have the right to spread illness and death.
The swift spread of COVID-19 in the United States is an established fact. The hazard of contagion at indoor gatherings where people sing is also dangerous. But that does not matter; the U.S. Supreme Court has just decided that religious rights take precedence over the right to life. In doing this, the United States sinks a little deeper into the quicksand of religious fundamentalism.
1. What Is the Case?
The case pitted the Catholic diocese of Brooklyn and an Orthodox Jewish organization against the governor of New York. The governor imposed strict attendance limits on religious organizations located in pandemic zones. Religious organizations asked that limitations consider room size and that, in general, they have higher ceilings.
2. What Are the Majority Justices’ Arguments?
The majority of the Court’s justices say that they did not see how the public’s health could be affected if a larger number of people were allowed to attend religious ceremonies, and that, in any case, even during a pandemic, it is impossible to restrict the number of people who participate in religious ceremonies because this violates the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees religious freedom. Thus, those who could not participate in religious ceremonies would endure irreparable harm, such as not being able to participate in communion. Note that this justification is not of a legal nature. It is of a religious nature.
3. Are There Any Precedents?
The Supreme Court had, in the 2014 case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.,already issued a surprising opinion. It permitted a company to opt out of the Affordable Care Act because the managers of a company were religious fundamentalists opposed to contraception, and “Obamacare” offered to pay for contraception. In its decision, the Supreme Court recognized that religious freedom applied to a legal entity. This was already surprising enough in itself, but above all, it placed religious rights above other individual rights. It subordinated the decision of elected legislators to that of company managers, provided that these decisions were based on religious motives. The recent decision of the court follows the same logic. I denounced this decision in 2014 in an article on the Journal de Montreal’s website (“An Alarming Victory for Fundamentalist Americans”).
4. Where Is This Leading?
Justices who systematically prioritize religious rights over others, and who, in so doing, subordinate the power of elected officials to religious leaders, destroy the foundations of American democracy. They favor embedding religious potentates everywhere in the United States, even though God is not mentioned anywhere in the U.S. Constitution.
5. What Can Joe Biden’s Democrats Do?
Joe Biden’s Democrats cannot do much about the judgment of religious fundamentalists on the Supreme Court, unless they win a majority of seats in the Senate next January, thanks to the runoff election in Georgia. The Democrats could then increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court and confirm justices who are not religious fundamentalists.