The Supreme Court of the United States has just passed a mind-blowing judgment. She decided 5 to 4 that elected officials in New York State could not limit religious gatherings during a pandemic. In more blunt terms, she ruled that religious organizations had the right to spread disease and death.
The meteoric rise of COVID19 in the United States is an established fact. The danger of contagion in indoor gatherings where people sing is too. But whatever, the American Supreme Court has just ruled that religious rights take precedence over the right to life. In doing so, the United States is sinking deeper into the quicksand of religious fundamentalism.
1. What is the cause ?
The case pitted the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and an Orthodox Jewish organization against the governor of New York State. The governor imposed very strict assistance limits on religious organizations located in pandemic zones. Religious organizations demanded that the limitations take into account the size of the rooms and that, in general, they be higher.
2. What are the arguments of the majority judges?
The majority of the court’s judges say it fails to see how public health could be affected if more people are allowed to attend religious ceremonies. And that anyway, even during a pandemic, it is impossible to restrict the number of people who participate in religious ceremonies because it violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution which guarantees religious freedoms. Thus, those who cannot attend these meetings would suffer irreparable harm, such as not participating in communion. Note that this justification is not legal in nature. It is religious in nature.
3. Were there any precedents?
The Supreme Court had already in 2014, in the Hobby Lobby case, taken a surprising decision. She had allowed a company to opt out of Obamacare, because the leaders of that company were religious fundamentalists opposed to contraception and Obamacare offered contraception. In doing so, the Supreme Court recognized that freedom of religion applied to a legal person, which was surprising enough in itself, but more importantly, it placed religious rights above other individual rights. It subordinated the decision of elected officials to that of business leaders, provided that these decisions were based on religious grounds. The recent decision of the Court follows the same logic. I denounced this decision in 2014 in a column on the website of Newspaper (An alarming victory for American fundamentalists).
4. Where does this lead?
Judges who systematically prioritize religious rights over others, and in doing so subordinate the power of elected officials to that of religious leaders, are destroying the foundations of American democracy. They promote the recess of religious potentates throughout the United States. Yet God is not mentioned anywhere in the American constitution.
5. What can Joe Biden’s Democrats do?
There is little that Biden’s Democrats can do to stop the Supreme Court’s religious fundamentalist rulings. Unless you win a majority of seats in the senate next January thanks to the elections in Georgia. Democrats could then increase the number of Supreme Court justices and appoint judges who are not religious fundamentalists.