Racial Equality

Supreme Court’s Dismissal Of Science In Pandemic Cases Threatens Public Health

  Rob Boston

Tomorrow is Darwin Day, a time when secularist and education groups celebrate the birth of the famed British naturalist Charles Darwin, whose pioneering work shaped our understanding of evolution.

It’s also a day to acknowledge the contributions of science. We have special reasons to make this acknowledgment now, as our nation continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. Although the rollout of the vaccines has been frustratingly slow, their development has given hope to millions. We can be thankful for the scientists who made this happen.

Science, not religious belief, should guide public policy as the pandemic plays out. Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t see it that way. The high court’s recent ruling partially overturning restrictions California officials had placed on indoor religious services should have been informed by professional scientific opinion – as were the restrictions California created for large gatherings, both secular and religious. Instead, the court relied on an inaccurate and overly rigid interpretation of religious freedom, and the justices failed to take into account the risk to public health posed by allowing these gatherings.

Justice Elena Kagan pointed out the problem with this approach. She began her dissent with a blunt statement: “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.”

Elsewhere, Kagan noted, “To state the obvious, judges do not know what scientists and public health experts do. I am sure that, in deciding this case, every Justice carefully examined the briefs and read the decisions below. But I cannot imagine that any of us delved into the scientific research on how COVID spreads, or studied the strategies for containing it. So it is alarming that the Court second-guesses the judgments of expert officials, and displaces their conclusions with its own. In the worst public health crisis in a century, this foray into armchair epidemiology cannot end well.”

Kagan’s right – and science backs her up. Medical experts have warned that the unique nature of religious services – large groups of people gathering in close proximity, indoors, for a prolonged period of time, often with singing and speaking – puts those events at enhanced risk for being super-spreader events. Numerous coronavirus outbreaks have been linked to events at houses of worship and other religious gatherings.

No one likes the current state of affairs, but accepting some science-based restrictions now will get us to a better place all the sooner.

Commenting on the Supreme Court’s action, Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser said, “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.”

Exactly. There are several problems with the court’s recent rulings on the pandemic, but they share a common thread: a lack of appreciation for science.

Americans United continues to urge courts and public officials across the country to listen to the scientists when it comes to COVID-19 public health orders, and to implement any restrictions fairly for both secular and religious entities because religious freedom should not be misused to risk people’s lives. Join us to support our efforts to protect both.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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