Commentary

Where are the justice warriors for religious freedom?

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The Supreme Court of the United States recently voted to grant relief to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America in a case contesting New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s pandemic restrictions, specifically a cap he placed on places of worship that restricted the number of individuals allowed to attend religious services.

Cuomo’s Executive Order stated no more than 10 or 25 people can convene at places of worship within areas of the city he classified as “red”  and “orange” zones, respectively. Yet on the same block and in the same zone, other businesses and organizations were allowed to operate without these same restrictions.  Some of the businesses New York has deemed essential, unlike religious services, include design and signage companies, acupuncture businesses, liquor stores, bike shops and more.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America contended these restrictions specifically targeted religious services and violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Based on his public statements, they accused Cuomo of targeting their religions and imposing harsher restrictions on them than he did their secular neighbors, despite their best efforts to comply with all local public health guidance without a previous outbreak. 

The Supreme Court responded by issuing an order for immediate relief, reiterating their duty to the American people to thoughtfully examine the validity of these claims, regardless of Cuomo walking back the restrictions as they were being reviewed by the high court. 

In dissent, Justices Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan wrote, “I see no justification for the Court’s change of heart, and I fear that granting applications such as the one filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn will only exacerbate the Nation’s suffering.” Despite their objections, the pair acknowledged that “Free religious exercise is one of our most treasured and jealously guarded constitutional rights. States may not discriminate against religious institutions, even when faced with a crisis as deadly as this one.”

So I ask, where are the justice warriors for religious liberty? There seems to be a justice warrior for every cause under the sun, including ones not actually protected by the Constitution. But when it comes to religious liberty, nobody in NYC seemed willing to stand up for their faithful neighbors. 

Shouldn’t we be asking why chief executives are allowing nonessential activities to occur while placing burdensome restrictions on constitutionally-protected activities, like exercising one’s faith? People can pack into a liquor store with masks on but can’t do the same thing to attend a religious service and worship their god?

Why do some businesses and organizations on the same block as places of worship in New York have the autonomy to decide their capacity, but a religious establishment cannot? I suppose it means your faith is nonessential, especially to Governor Cuomo.

“No apparent reason exists why people may not gather, subject to identical restrictions, in churches or synagogues, especially when religious institutions have made plain that they stand ready, able, and willing to follow all the safety precautions required of ‘essential’ businesses and perhaps more besides. The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as ‘essential’ as what happens in secular spaces,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court. 

How can anyone blindly accept these regulations as “science” instead of what they are — unnecessary oppression?

Cuomo imposed these restrictions with no valid claim that religious services had contributed to the spread of COVID-19. The state has not shown that the public’s safety is at risk with less restrictive measures imposed.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America were not asking to worship at maximum capacity. They sought reasonable, fair and rational restrictions enabling them to function and lend support to their congregation. They simply challenge the incredibly unfair capacity limitations that were intentionally set on places of worship in their respective communities.

In its decision, the high court is not denying the gravity of the pandemic. “To be clear, the COVID–19 pandemic remains extraordinarily serious and deadly. And at least until vaccines are readily available, the situation may get worse in many parts of the United States. But judicial deference in an emergency or a crisis does not mean wholesale judicial abdication, especially when important questions of religious discrimination, racial discrimination, free speech, or the like are raised,” Justice Kavanaugh writes. 

But luckily, our rights are not waived by the rash decisions of public officials. The Constitution guarantees this. We should applaud the high court for working to preserve the rights of every American, regardless of faith, or lack thereof.

About Melissa Baker

Melissa Baker serves as an intern at Maine Policy Institute. She currently attends the University of Southern Maine and will graduate this spring with an undergraduate degree in communications.

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