Earlier this month, the Supreme Court made the uninformed decision in a 6 – 3 vote to lift the ban on indoor church services on the basis that these restrictions, put in place by Governor Gavin Newsom, were in violation of the Constitution’s protection of free exercise of religion. This case showed the division within the Supreme Court as the majority filed three separate opinions while the three other justices, who opposed the decision, wrote a sharp dissenting opinion together.
Although the decision was based on a violation of religious freedom, I cannot help but wonder if it was just another political decision in the battle between liberals and conservatives which made its way to the branch of our government meant to be the most objective. While political decisions in the court are inevitable, seeing as the president nominates the Justice, while the Senate approves, to make such a decision during a health crisis, in which millions upon millions have died, completely undermines any sound argument the majority made to reach this decision.
In May, the Supreme Court ruled 5 – 4 to uphold California’s restrictions on church services, with Chief Justice John Roberts ruling in favor of keeping those restrictions at the time. He believed in deferring to the state officials coping with pandemic, but, in this recent case, Chief Justice Roberts states that deference has its limits. However, by agreeing to lift these restrictions, the conservative majority are not taking into account COVID-19 outbreaks that have been linked to worship places.
In November of 2020, health officials in North Carolina were investigating an outbreak at the United House of Prayer for All People in Charlotte, which had spread to the community. This was after the church held large gatherings without proper safety precautions. In early December of 2020, parishioners in San Diego, Calif. were warned by health officers of COVID-19 outbreaks at three separate campuses of the Awaken Church. Additionally, 36 COVID-19 clusters and 316 confirmed cases in Massachusetts were tied to places of worship by epidemiologists since the beginning of the pandemic. It is crystal clear that not even worship places are safe from COVID-19, yet Justices Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas filed an opinion voting for restrictions on California churches to be lifted completely.
According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, California is the only state to ban indoor worship and places extreme restrictions on places of worship compared to other areas. This statement shows a clear concern for discrimination on the basis of religion and calls for action to remedy this, but to lift restrictions completely during a health crisis does not show the same concern. Rather, it seems to be more in line with the misinformed views that the coronavirus isn’t as much of a big deal that health officials make it out to be — a view that has quickly become a political matter rather than the major health concern that it should be.
Justice Gorsuch, in his signed opinion, stated that “California worries that worship brings people together for too much time. Yet, California does not limit its citizens to running in and out of other establishments.” Perhaps if Justice Gorsuch listened to what health officials say are top risk factors for spreading the coronavirus, he will notice that one of those risk factors is staying in one place with a long duration of exposure. It is known that worship takes place in one single setting and may take over an hour, which explains why California banned indoor worship as enclosed spaces is also another risk factor of COVID-19. In contrast, it is expected that, if someone goes to a shopping mall or a grocery store during a health crisis, they will go in and out for as little time as possible. Unless Justices Gorsuch, Alito, and Thomas come up with a solution to prohibit lingering in such establishments and successfully enforce it, then not much can be done about those who choose to risk themselves and others in such a way. The state can attempt to prohibit or restrict lingering in indoor establishments, but whether people will follow through is another matter.
Justices Gorsuch, Thomas, and Alito also bring up how Hollywood is allowed to “host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques.” In her first signed opinion, Justice Barrett, along with Justice Kavanaugh, seem to agree with this statement, as she writes, “[ . . . ]if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral.” If the justices are “worried” about lax restrictions in the entertainment industry, then perhaps they should direct California’s attention to making sure those restrictions are tightened, or at least, approved by health officials and based in science. That would be much better than lifting restrictions on the churches, allowing for more people to contract COVID-19. Despite the distribution of vaccines, we are still in a health crisis, and we cannot afford to have even more cases of COVID-19 than we already do.
Unlike the other three conservative justices, Justice Barrett and Justice Kavanaugh seemed to focus on whether singing should be allowed indoors in places of worship. While Justice Barrett ultimately decided that there should be restrictions on singing, she also stated that she would reconsider if the churches made their case well. Again, a justice on the Supreme Court is seemingly ignoring science, which proves that loud talking and singing is also another risk of COVID-19, since “loud speech and singing expel significantly more oral fluid droplets than normal talking.” As Justice Kagan writes in the dissenting opinion, in agreement with Justices Sotomayor and Breyer, “Justices of this court are not scientists. Nor do we know much about public health policy.” After looking at the aforementioned opinions by the five conservative justices, I couldn’t agree more with Justice Kagan’s statement.
Despite my misgivings about the lifting of restrictions on California places of worship, I completely understand where they are coming from. It certainly doesn’t seem fair if other places at risk of COVID-19 don’t have the same or similar amount of restrictions as worship places. However, in terms of religious freedom, the state isn’t prohibiting the freedom to exercise your religion; it is just saying that, for the safety of the public, there should be restrictions in worshiping indoors in a specific place. You can still worship outside or virtually. I know, virtual worship services are not the same as in-person, just like how virtual counseling or virtual events are not the same as being there in-person — but, it is safer. According to Dr. Eric Christopher Cioe-Pena, the director of global health at Northwell Health in New York and an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Hofstra University, and Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Tennessee, churches with poor ventilation and with an overrepresentation of older people are especially vulnerable to exposure of COVID-19.
While the Supreme Court ultimately decided that the state may limit indoor service to 25 percent of the building’s capacity and restrict singing and chanting, it is still worrying how one third of the Court would so easily agree to do away with restrictions entirely — especially when one of them, Justice Gorsuch, was chosen by former President Trump. It definitely shows that, despite Trump leaving office, the three justices that he chose to be placed on the Supreme Court may continue to push forward his agenda. Additionally, this decision by the Supreme Court, along with the decision to reopen public schools (even though they shouldn’t), shows that people are feeling like things can go back to normal due to vaccine distribution. It certainly helps that cases are beginning to stagnate or go down, but that doesn’t mean they are gone completely. As of Feb. 17, there were 57,970 new COVID-19 cases and 1,396 new deaths. While it is possible to achieve herd immunity through vaccination, not many health experts know what exact percentage of people need to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity, though Dr. Fauci so far predicts 75 to 85 percent. Currently, only 4.7 percent of the American population have received both doses of the vaccine.
We cannot afford to lose vigilance in this time of a public health crisis. This is a matter of public health, not politics. No matter your political view, you should be concerned about your own health and the health of others. Thankfully, many places of worship plan to follow public health precautions, like Capital Christian Centers in Sacramento. Although, there are those few, like Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, who plan to go back and defy the ban on singing. I can only hope that, in future cases, the Supreme Court and other state officials may be able to listen to science and other public health officials in order to make such big decisions, rather than what politics are saying.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Christina House / Los Angeles Times
Abigail Sanchez has been writing for the Quaker Campus since fall 2019 and is currently the Opinions Editor of the Quaker Campus. She is also a freelance writer and has written for two feminist media platforms. She enjoys writing about political and social issues that affect the country and her community. In her spare time, Abigail likes to listen to music, read books, and write fictional stories.