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The nonsense of the pandemic’s unreasonable religious restrictions

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Photo illustration by Alex Cochran and Michelle Budge

Media pundits have been hyperventilating ever since a conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an executive order by New York’s governor last week. The order limited church worship services to 10 or 25 people, depending on whether they were in areas designated as red or orange, respectively, in terms of COVID-19 severity.

The conservative justices are “scientifically illiterate,” critics have said. The decision will lead to even more deaths in the current pandemic.

What utter nonsense.

Nothing in the 5-4 decision to provide injunctive relief to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America prohibits governments from applying reasonable limits to attendance at worship services. What it does do is recognize religious services as essential, requiring consistent treatment with other essential businesses and services.

While some nonbelievers may never understand the need for spiritual worship, partaking in communion or similar rites and ordinances, the fact is that the free exercise of religion is enshrined in the Constitution, while shopping or eating at a restaurant or bar are not. 

As the court’s majority opinion noted, “even 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.”

The court has the law and the Constitution as its guide. To ignore the first right enumerated in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights would be to ignore the court’s chief role.

As for science, the majority opinion recognized that “Stemming the spread of COVID-19 is unquestionably a compelling interest,” but noted the governor’s restrictions on churches were far worse than what has been shown to be needed to stem the spread of the virus.

Most churches have imposed reasonable restrictions regarding social distancing and the wearing of masks. The court noted that the Brooklyn Diocese’s churches had not seen any COVID-19 outbreak since reopening. Limiting a 1,000-seat church or a 400-seat synagogue to 10 people is overly restrictive, especially considering how many are allowed to shop at stores in the same neighborhoods.

The court’s dissenters said the ruling was unnecessary because New York’s governor has since redesignated the areas that included the churches as yellow zones, meaning they now may allow congregations at up to 50% capacity. But this ruling sends an essential message to other government’s nationwide.

It also ought to force them to reexamine whether the treatment of other “essential” services is logical or scientific. 

Writing for christianitytoday.com, John Inazu, the Sally D. Danforth distinguished professor of law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis, said there may be a scientific argument to be made that shopping is less dangerous than a well-attended, lengthy worship service, but “The elephant in the room is all the latitude given restaurants and bars, whose gatherings seem far worse for the pandemic than limited-number, masked, indoor worship.” 

Worship, Inazu wrote, is absolutely essential, “and to say otherwise is constitutionally incorrect and politically unwise.”

That doesn’t mean political leaders or courts cannot limit church attendance or require other safety precautions to protect public health. As the nation’s highest court has ably demonstrated, it means houses of worship must be treated on a par, scientifically and otherwise, with other essential services.

Nothing about this refutes science or puts the public in any danger.