Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court has shown support of church services in their battle against COVID-19 restrictions. On Nov. 25, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5 – 4 decision that the coronavirus restrictions on religious services placed in New York by Governor Andrew Cuomo violated the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion. It was claimed that Gov. Cuomo’s restrictions targeted houses of worship with tighter restrictions than factories and schools — which Gov. Cuomo has stated before as contributing to the spread of COVID-19. It is worth noting that the newest member of the Court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, was a decisive vote in this case. In past cases, before Justice Barrett joined her colleagues, the court was also split in a 5 – 4 decision on similar cases in California and Nevada in favor of maintaining coronavirus restrictions in places of worship. However, on Dec. 3, the Supreme Court sided with a California church, citing Governor Gavin Newsom’s ban on indoor religious services as “unconstitutional religious discrimination.”
The question that these recent rulings bring up is whether this matter is truly about the violation of the freedom of religion. In a way, the answer to this, is no.
I do believe that it isn’t fair for houses of worship to face tighter COVID-19 restrictions than the places more at risk of spreading the virus, but the impression these cases seem to give off is either that restrictions placed on religious services should be greatly lessened in general, or that they should be lifted. Neither of these options sounds logical, especially in the face of rising coronavirus cases this winter. According to the website for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a steep rise in cases in L.A. County from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4. As of Dec. 7, L.A. County Public Health has reported an increase of 8,086 cases, bringing the total number of cases to 457,880, while the entire state of California has about 1,366,435 COVID-19 cases.
Safety measures are meaningless if the public doesn’t follow through with them. In fact, only 55 percent of LA County have been following the stay-at-home order since mid-June, and the number still remains unchanged. This pandemic hasn’t been fair to anyone, and many people have had to make sacrifices in the name of health and safety. The Supreme Court’s recent rulings may set a precedent of throwing COVID-19 restrictions out the door in order to “preserve our rights.” Doesn’t everyone have the right to life, though? I cannot speak for all religions, but, as a Catholic, I am taught to be ‘pro-life.’ However, there is nothing pro-life about wanting to defy restrictions meant to keep people safe from contracting COVID-19. A person may not necessarily get the virus at a place of worship, but they may come in contact with it somewhere else and bring it back to a religious gathering, where other people are in attendance, spreading it exponentially. This isn’t a matter of religion, but a matter of life and of safety for one’s own self, and others.
It is telling that on the same day the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. won their case in the Supreme Court, Pope Francis wrote an op-ed in the New York Times. In this op-ed, he praised the front-line workers and even the governments which have put the well-being of their people first, while noting that some groups protest against health measures meant to protect them. In his words, “It is all too easy for some to take an idea — in this case, for example, personal freedom — and turn it into an ideology, creating a prism through which they judge everything.”
In the case that there are places that need tighter restrictions but do not have them, then the focus should be on tightening restrictions in those places instead of loosening restrictions on others for the sake of fairness and equality. During this pandemic, we need to think of others and understand that we need to adapt to this ‘new normal.’ It is stressful and frustrating for everyone, but the quicker we all follow health guidelines and work together to get through these unexpected times, the quicker we can lower the number of cases and deaths of the coronavirus. The vaccine is already in the works of being released to the public. Only by following health guidelines together can we begin to close this chapter of COVID-19 and social distancing.
Feature Image: Courtesy of Associated Press / Los Angeles Times