bookmark_borderSupreme Court got it right: public health cannot override religious freedom

The Supreme Court’s Thanksgiving decision overturning New York’s Covid restrictions was truly something to be grateful for. A 5-4 majority ruled that the state government violated the First Amendment by imposing capacity limitations on religious services in an effort to combat the virus. 

The 5-justice majority reasoned that New York’s restrictions discriminated against religious institutions because they were regulated more strictly than secular businesses such as retail stores. But Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, part of the minority of 4, argued in their dissent that church services ought to be treated more strictly than stores because they involve people spending large amounts of time together in an enclosed space, often singing and talking. Retail businesses typically do not feature singing, and customers typically get in and out fairly quickly, making the virus less likely to spread there. “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,” wrote Sotomayor. She argued that the religious restrictions are justified because they help to save lives, and that the ruling overturning them “will only exacerbate the Nation’s suffering.” Professor Jeffrey Sachs made a similar argument in an opinion piece for CNN, criticizing the ruling as “against public-health science” and “scientifically illiterate.” 

These arguments would make sense if saving lives was the sole consideration in determining right and wrong; in other words if a policy’s effectiveness in stopping the virus was the sole consideration in determining whether or not it should be enacted. But this is not the case. The first and foremost consideration in determining whether a policy should be implemented is: does it violate individual rights? If so, then it is not morally permissible, and should not be considered constitutional, regardless of how many lives it would save. This is not “anti-science” or “scientifically illiterate.” It is simply recognizing that science and morality are two separate things. The court was not “second guessing the expert judgment of health officials” about the environments in which the virus spreads most easily. It was simply affirming that these judgments about risk cannot justify taking away fundamental freedoms. Science tells us factual information about the world, including how a virus spreads and what measures would be most effective at containing it. But only philosophy can determine which policies governments ought to enact. Too many people, worshipping at the altar of “science” and “data,” falsely presume that whatever science says is most effective is what should be done. This is to throw morality out the window.

Referencing Pope Francis’s New York Times opinion piece bashing people who stand up for individual rights (I wrote about that here), Sachs claims, “the common good takes precedence over simplistic appeals to ‘personal freedom’ in protests against justified public health measures.” I could not disagree more strongly. First of all, Sachs is presuming the truth of what he is trying to prove. The public health measures against which people have been protesting are not justified. They are unjustified. That is why people are protesting against them. Second, it is offensive and wrong that Sachs chose to derisively put the words “personal freedom” in quotes. The appeals that he refers to are to personal freedom, not “personal freedom.” Additionally, there is nothing “simplistic” about the concept of personal freedom. The non-aggression principle is simple, but that does not make it stupid or incorrect, as Sachs implies. In fact, according to the concept of Occam’s razor, simple ideas are more, not less, likely to be true. Finally, the common good does not take precedence over personal freedom. Individual rights are an absolute and therefore must take precedence over everything else. 

Sachs complains that as a result of the Supreme Court ruling, “public health authorities will feel hamstrung to restrict religious gatherings even when the virus is spreading out of control.” But that is exactly the way it should be. He urges religious, public-health, and political leaders to use “scientific knowledge combined with compassion.” But the policies for which he advocates – taking away individual freedoms in order to combat the spread of the virus – demonstrate a complete lack of compassion. A leader with true compassion would understand that not everyone has the same preferences as he or she does. A leader with true compassion would allow all people to make decisions according to their preferences as opposed to imposing his or her own preferences and risk tolerance on everyone. Therefore, it is the five justices who overturned New York’s restrictions, including the Court’s newest member, Amy Coney Barrett, who demonstrate true compassion.