As the U.S. Supreme Court grows more conservative, it’s not unusual to look at actions and rulings by the court and conclude that they will reduce our rights instead of expanding them. What is unusual, though, is seeing rulings that will likely cause people to get sick and possibly die – yet that’s precisely what might happen thanks to a court action last week.
The court ruled 5-4 late Wednesday evening that a New York order designed to limit large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic violates the rights of houses of worship. While it wasn’t unexpected, the court’s action is still disappointing – and dangerous. (Americans United and its allies filed legal briefs in the New York cases, arguing that the Constitution does not prohibit New York officials from including houses of worship and religious services in temporary restrictions on large, in-person gatherings, and that it would be harmful to the public to exempt religious gatherings from the state’s order.)
As fall settles in around the country and temperatures start to dip, the country is seeing exactly what medical experts warned us about: a new wave of infections as people head indoors. Maps that show hotspots are truly alarming; many states are seeing record numbers of cases.
We’re in this place in part because of President Donald Trump’s poor leadership. When he wasn’t proclaiming that the virus would magically disappear, Trump peddled untested remedies and elevated the views of quack doctors all while pushing for a premature reopening of the economy.
Things have only gotten worse since Election Day. Trump, who is obsessed with trying to overturn the results of an election that he clearly lost, has surrendered utterly to the virus. In this leadership void, state and local officials have been grappling for the past nine months with the best way to keep Americans safe and healthy. The Supreme Court’s ruling makes their already difficult job all the harder.
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor struck at the heart of the matter, writing, “Justices of this Court play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily.”
That deadly game will have consequences. The justices are experts in law, not medicine. In this case, they would have done better to defer to experts in the field. Instead, they have forced state officials to go back to the drawing board to craft rules that will meet the court’s objections. Worse yet, they’ve handed a justification to those governors and other officials who, in the face of 266,000 deaths, would rather do nothing.
Science will eventually provide a solution to this deadly pandemic. Several new vaccines already show great promise. But those vaccines aren’t yet ready for mass distribution, and until they are, it’s imperative that Americans continue to follow some commonsense guidelines and that government officials have the power to curb actions that put everyone at risk.
The Supreme Court could have moved the nation closer to a healthier future by allowing New York’s regulations – which, it should be noted, actually treated religious gatherings more favorably than nonreligious gatherings – to stand, but instead, the court majority chose to erect roadblocks.
It is a poor decision, and some Americans will likely die because of it.
P.S. Since the coronavirus outbreak, Americans United has filed 40 other amicus briefs in courts across the country in similar cases involving requests for religious exemptions from COVID-19 public health orders, including one in the Supreme Court opposing a pending request that the court block California’s limits on worship services. A ruling on that request is likely within a week or so, and we will see whether it does even greater harm to states’ efforts to control the pandemic.