In a decision released late last night, the Supreme Court ruled that California has no right to ban indoor church gatherings even in parts of the state where COVID cases are surging, though they may limit attendance to 25% capacity.
That means some of the largest churches in the state will be permitted to open its doors to hundreds, if not thousands, of people well before everyone has received the vaccine, to gather close to each other for hours at a time and spread the virus faster than they could ever spread the Gospel. The rationale is that churches are comparable to other places that have opened to the public — like shopping malls. Even though when people shop, they can enter and leave quickly without chatting with other people in close proximity.
But the bigger story here is that the conservative super-majority on the Court thinks churches should be exempt from rules meant to prevent the spread of a deadly virus, putting their entire communities (and beyond!) at risk.
Justice Elena Kagan, speaking for the Court’s three remaining liberals, was blunt in her dissent:
Justices of this Court are not scientists. Nor do we know much about public health policy. Yet today the Court displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging pandemic. The Court orders California to weaken its restrictions on public gatherings by making a special exception for worship services. The majority does so even though the State’s policies treat worship just as favorably as secular activities (including political assemblies) that, according to medical evidence, pose the same risk of COVID transmission. Under the Court’s injunction, the State must instead treat worship services like secular activities that pose a much lesser danger. That mandate defies our caselaw, exceeds our judicial role, and risks worsening the pandemic.
This is no garden-variety legal error: In forcing California to ignore its experts’ scientific findings, the Court impairs the State’s effort to address a public health emergency.
In the worst public health crisis in a century, this foray into armchair epidemiology cannot end well.
Kagan also added, with notable sarcasm, that the Court itself would never have to suffer consequences while unleashing all this suffering upon the country:
But if this decision causes suffering, we will not pay. Our marble halls are now closed to the public, and our life tenure forever insulates us from responsibility for our errors.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State President and CEO Rachel Laser denounced the Court’s irresponsible decision:
“Once again the Supreme Court has misconstrued religious freedom to mean religious privilege and placed the health of the American people in jeopardy with an order that allows houses of worship to evade sensible public safety regulations curbing large gatherings during a pandemic.
“State orders restricting large gatherings, religious and secular, are for the common good. This is a time for shared sacrifice. Tragically, the court’s embrace of a radical definition of religious freedom and its unwillingness to uphold public health officials’ common-sense rules are actively undercutting our national effort to keep everyone safe and healthy.”
The Court’s decision will lead to more death and destruction at a time when so many state officials have been doing everything they can to save lives. Unfortunately the conservative justices are more interested in defending their bizarre interpretation of “religious freedom” than using some common sense and acknowledging that California isn’t trying to prevent worship; it’s just trying to save lives according to the best science available.
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