The powerful desire for religious freedom goes back to ancient times. We celebrated it on Thanksgiving when we marked 400 years since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock to escape religious persecution. We should also welcome a Supreme Court decision issued Wednesday night that is an important victory for religious liberty today.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling overturned New York state’s strict limit on attendance at religious services during the coronavirus pandemic. The high court sided with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and the Jewish group Agudath Israel of America in a victory for the liberty of all.
The decision by the Supreme Court temporarily blocked New York’s effort to subject churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses to worship to strict 10-person or 20-person limits on occupancy, depending on the severity of COVID-19 in the area where a house of worship is located.
Third, we should remember that governments don’t have the resources to enforce these lockdowns.
Governments depend on the voluntary cooperation of a citizenry that accepts the reasonableness of these emergency measures. Police have their hands full protecting us from violent criminals. They would be unable to devote sufficient time to that important task if they had to devote time and energy to snooping on businesses, homes and houses of worship.
When Gov. Newsom refuses to obey the rules he set to bar large gatherings (he recently went to dinner at a high-end French restaurant with lobbyists) or sends his kids to private school while public schools remain shut, he undermines the moral legitimacy necessary for widespread voluntary compliance.
Courts will defer to states during a public health emergency. But as the emergency continues, governments will have to provide better justifications for severe restrictions on individual liberty.
While lockdowns may have made sense early during the pandemic when we knew little about COVID-19, shutdowns now are severely interfering with the First Amendment right of religious freedom and the economic liberty of business owners.
Courts will begin to demand some reasonable basis for the lockdowns, and as they do, they will likely find few good arguments for restrictions like those that have descended upon Los Angeles and New York.
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