Laboring under dark clouds, a shaft of light is welcome – and we just got one. The US Supreme Court on November 25th ruled 5-4: Religious liberty supersedes government’s power to curtail it, even in a pandemic. Period. See, e.g., https://www.breitbart.com/faith/2020/11/25/supreme-court-sides-with-religious-groups-against-andrew-cuomo-5-4-barrett/; https://www.politico.com/news/2020/11/26/supreme-court-religion-covid-barrett-440808.
Specifically, the High Court granted “emergency relief” to New York’s Roman Catholic churches and Jewish congregations, against strict New York limits on attendance. Wrote the Court: “Restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty,” and “even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.” See, e.g., https://lawandcrime.com/supreme-court/justice-barrett-casts-deciding-vote-against-gov-cuomos-restrictions-on-churches-and-synagogues/.
The unsigned decision was joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. The decision effectively takes the Court in a new direction, reversing indifference shown earlier in 2020. Make no mistake, Barrett turned the dial. Concurrences and dissents clashed boldly.
Justice Gorsuch pulled no punches. He wrote: “As we round out 2020 and face the prospect of entering a second calendar year living in the pandemic’s shadow, that rationale has expired according to its own terms … Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical.”
He continued: “Courts must resume applying the Free Exercise Clause,” and hit Justice Roberts hard. Gorsuch accused him of a “serious rewriting of history,” adding: “We may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack. Things never go well when we do.”
Finally, Gorsuch laid it out, no sugarcoating. “Government is not free to disregard the First Amendment in times of crisis.” “The Governor has chosen to impose no capacity restrictions on certain businesses he considers ‘essential’ …” including “hardware stores, acupuncturists, and liquor stores,” and “bicycle repair shops, certain signage companies, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents are all essential too.”
Missing are Houses of Worship. “So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians. Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?”
“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. That,” concluded Gorsuch, “is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.”
The chasm between judicially conservative majority and activist, secularist minority is deep.
While Roberts offered a milk toast dissent, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan were blunt. Sotomayor snapped, ready to discriminate against religion. “Unlike religious services … bike repair shops and liquor stores generally do not feature customers gathering inside to sing and speak together for an hour or more at a time,” she wrote.
She added: “Justices of this Court play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily.” In short, the minority gives religion a boot, saying more wish to attend services than fix bicycles or buy bottled booze. See, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/11/26/supreme-court-religion-covid-barrett-440808.
Implications are immediate, significant, and foreshadow. This holding affirms traditional understandings of the Constitution. Government – whether State or Federal – cannot cancel, encroach upon, upend, eviscerate, or emasculate, either by word or deed, the Bill of Rights.
While leading Democrats – including Governor Cuomo – street activists, political liberals, ideological leftists, avowed socialists, incremental anti-religious secularists, and litigious atheists are all unhappy, the Court was clear. The ruling holds for religious liberty, not against it.
What exact implications may attach to this decision? At least, four.
First, the decision immediately stops a host of Democrat governors – and the potential Biden Administration – from more “pandemic-justified” attacks on religion. Governors, who often appear tone deaf, indifferent, and even hostile to religion – are made quiet. The ruling protects churches, synagogues, mosques, and all religious venues. That is an important, overdue.
Second, this ruling will hearten at least 215 million Americans who value faith, 65 percent of America that believes in God. Government cannot strip them of rights to assemble, speak, sing, or worship in His name. Faith does not take a backseat to government. Fitting at Thanksgiving.
Third, this ruling will – the way swatting a hornet’s nest will – bring out the stingers. It already has. New York’s Governor Cuomo – ironically, himself a lawyer – dismissed the Supreme Court ruling as “irrelevant.” To him, it may be – to America it is not. See, e.g., https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/nov/27/andrew-cuomo-blasts-supreme-court-ruling-on-religi/.
Cuomo’s reaction tells us how Democrats in the future. They will be dismissive, disparaging, and disrespectful to the Supreme Court majority, aiming to undermine the Court’s role in society, as they undermined a presidency.
Damage that can be done to a republic by turning against institutions themselves, when unhappy with decisions made, is serious. Modern Democrats seem content to damage institutions, on the way to fast-tracking an agenda half the nation considers profoundly offensive – centralizing government, impinging on core liberties.
Fourth, on the encouraging side, this ruling foretells the future. Whether on issues tied to constitutional rights – enshrined in our First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Twelfth, Fourteenth or any other Amendment, this majority WILL respect words and their meaning, not drift off into rewriting the Constitution to fit their political whims.
Bottom line: History advances by inches, with inevitable backsteps that challenge, frustrate, and dishearten those who believe in core values. Decisions like this one are instantly important, and cheeringly predictive. This is big. Where is leads is good. As we slog under dark clouds, take heart – there are shafts of light. Where they shine, if we follow, good things may come.