“Now is the time for Americans to stand for the principle that our country must both safeguard public health and protect our fundamental right to religious freedom.”
Many people of faith are now in a holy season; and while we safeguard public health, we must reject the unjust temptation to throw out our civil rights in the process. The COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is a serious illness which requires civil society, the health care system, and government to continue to care for the health of all Americans.
“We mourn those who have passed, remain in solidarity with those who are suffering—especially the most vulnerable and aged—and believe our country must assertively protect public health. However, our Republic can protect the rights to life and health of our citizens while preserving our other God-given civil rights,” said Louis Brown, Executive Director of the Christ Medicus Foundation.
Brown continued, “In its recent decision, Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, the U.S. Supreme Court reached the same conclusion: the Constitution demands that government protect public health without shredding the fundamental rights of Americans. Yet, government officials in jurisdictions across the country continue to press for unjust restrictions to houses of worship. These unjust restrictions on houses of worship must stop. We can both protect public health and respect religious liberty.”
December 16, 2020
Defend Religious Freedom and Safeguard Public Health: We Must do Both Now
In Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, the Supreme Court considered the likelihood of whether New York State’s executive order violated the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom by severely restricting attendance at religious services and leaving attendance at many secular businesses untouched. These restrictions required that in ‘red’ zones, no more than 10 people attend a religious service and, in other ‘orange’ zones, no more than 25 people attend. The Diocese of Brooklyn, as well as Agudath Israel, an Orthodox Jewish organization, alleged that these restrictions treated houses of worship in an unconstitutionally discriminatory manner, even though their affiliated houses of worship have had zero cases of the virus, complied with public health guidance, and added their own heightened precautionary measures. The Supreme Court’s opinion found that New York’s restrictions were problematic because:
In a red zone, while a synagogue or church may not admit more than 10 persons, businesses categorized as “essential” may admit as many people as they wish. And the list of “essential” businesses includes things such as acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential, such as all plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and all transportation facilities [internal citation omitted]. This disparate treatment is even more striking in an orange zone. While attendance at houses of worship is limited to 25 persons, even non-essential businesses may decide for themselves how many persons to admit.
These categorizations lead to troubling results. At the hearing in the District Court, a health department official testified about a large store in Brooklyn that could “literally have hundreds of people shopping there on any given day [internal citation omitted].
The U.S. Supreme Court thus struck down these restrictions on religious worship and ruled that such restrictions likely violated the civil right of religious liberty under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Court wrote that, “[E]ven in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The 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.”
In his stirring concurring opinion, Justice Gorsuch declared that, “Government is not free to disregard the First Amendment in times of crisis. At a minimum, that Amendment prohibits government officials from treating religious exercises worse than comparable secular activities, unless they are pursuing a compelling interest and using the least restrictive means available [internal citation omitted].” In analyzing the State’s public health order, Justice Gorsuch found that the executive order discriminated against religious interests in a manner that seemingly has no connection to public health. He wrote:
At the same time, the Governor has chosen to impose no capacity restrictions on certain businesses he considers “essential.” And it turns out the businesses the Governor considers essential include hardware stores, acupuncturists, and liquor stores. Bicycle repair shops, certain signage companies, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents are all essential too. 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?
Justice Gorsuch resoundingly declared that the U.S. Constitution protects against religious discrimination and upholds the right of religious freedom during this pandemic. Justice Gorsuch wrote, “It is time—past time—to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques.”
In reflecting on the opinion, Mr. Brown stated that “The U.S. Supreme Court’s defense of religious freedom rights against New York State’s unjust restrictions is one of the most important decisions of the young 21st century.”
Jordan Buzza, director of the CMF CURO health care ministry stated, “Now is the time for Americans to stand for the principle that our country must both safeguard public health and protect our fundamental right to religious freedom.”
Mr. Brown added, “The civil right of religious freedom is a foundational pillar of our American republic. These civil rights must endure even in times of a public health crisis. Profoundly, our cherished civil rights are the very foundation upon which the concept of public health stands: the truth that each person has God-given dignity, a right to life, and therefore, a right to health that should be protected. With courage, let us all rise to affirm that we will safeguard the health of our neighbors and we will defend our religious freedom.”