Racial Equality

The Supreme Court Continues To Privilege Religion In COVID Cases

  Rob Boston

As we noted Saturday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued another appalling ruling in a case related to coronavirus restrictions.

“The ultra-conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court continues to redefine the constitutional promise of religious freedom for all as religious privilege for a select few,” said AU President and CEO Rachel Laser. “By once again undermining science-based public health orders meant to limit the spread of a deadly virus, the court is prioritizing the religious practices of a few over the health and safety of entire communities.”

The lawsuit involves a challenge to a public health order in California limiting religious and other types of gatherings in private homes to the members of three households. A five-member high court majority put this limit aside as the case goes forward, asserting that it violates religious freedom.

But it doesn’t. As three justices noted in dissent, the restriction applied equally to religious and secular gatherings alike. People from more than three households could not gather to discuss religion or recipes. Religious groups can hardly claim they are shouldering a special burden when it’s imposed on everyone else.

The court majority argued that religious groups and people were being singled out for unequal treatment because stores and other types of services remain open.

One can’t help but wonder if the court majority is not being deliberately obtuse here as it desperately grasps at any rationale to favor religion. Its analysis relies on a classic false equivalency. Visiting a big box store for necessary supplies is not the same as attending a Bible study in your friend’s living room. When people shop these days, they get in, get what they want and get out. They practice social distancing and don’t socialize.

Gatherings at private residences – including home-based religious services – are quite different. People may be together in close quarters, less likely to wear masks, sing, talk and engage in other activities that help to spread the virus.

Despite the court’s reckless rulings, there’s cause for optimism about COVID: Nearly half of adult Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine. Yes, the spread of variants is troubling, and yes, too many Americans (among them lots of evangelical Christians) remain vaccine hesitant, but in the main, we’re moving in the right direction.

If we continue to be sensible and watch out for one another, we might get through this thing yet and see life return to something like normal later this year. If that happens, it will be in spite of, and not because of, the highest court in the land.

Meanwhile, Americans United will continue to advise courts, public health officials, faith leaders and communities how best to balance public health and the constitutional promise of religious freedom (and the Supreme Court’s skewed interpretation of it). AU’s Legal Department continues to file friend-of-the-court briefs (we filed our 50th brief last week); our Public Policy Department continues to oppose bills that would limit the ability of states to apply public health orders equally to religious and secular entities; and we’ll continue to encourage and uplift faith communities that recognize religious freedom is not the right to put people’s lives at risk. You support our efforts by joining AU.  

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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