A recent Supreme Court decision in which the conservative judges decided in favor of religious groups who want to continue to meet in groups over ten or more despite Covid 19 restrictions is dangerous. The decision said this right is protected under the religious freedom article of the constitution. Regretfully, this shows the dumbing down of the Supreme Court.
Anyone should understand that just as freedom of speech, another right protected under the Constitution, is limited so is religious freedom limited. Oliver Wendell Holmes said in one of his momentous decisions about freedom of speech ‘you do not have the right to yell fire in a crowded theater’ there are also various limitations on religious freedom. The court would decide later in a more defining ruling that speech cannot create a ‘clear and present danger’. This phrase is used to define between an innocuous inflammatory speech and a seditious or inciting to violence speech.
The limitations that the Justices overruled in the religious freedom case center around the health and endangerment of the congregants and their communities. It is illegal in most states to have snake handling services because of the threat of harm to the participants. It should be noted is applicable even when the congregant is agreeable to the service.
The court decided against whether religious faith could be used by parents to deny their children various treatment. They used the standard based on the severity of the medical problem, the likelihood of success of the proposed treatment and the limited potential harm of the treatment. It was “well-settled that the state may order medical treatment for a nonlife threatening condition, notwithstanding the objection of the parents on religious grounds, if the treatment will, in all likelihood, temporarily or permanently solve a substantial medical problem” The court recognized that the state could not order treatment over religious objection of the parents if the treatment was “risky, extremely invasive, toxic with many side effects, and/or offers a low chance of success”.
This is the consistent ruling by state and federal courts in favor of the state over the religious practitioners when a child is endangered and can receive medical assistance that has a strong chance of mitigating the child’s health in a beneficial manner.
Cults that involve the sexual or physical abuse of their children or parents can and are prosecuted. Even when the practices are religious. Religious groups are not able to practice polygamy in all but one state and the stated purpose for allowing polygamy in that state is to remove a barrier in the reporting of abuse in polygamous relationships.
Again and again in various cases we find that religious freedom is restricted when it endangers the congregants. So what does it mean when the conservative justices decide that despite prevailing medical opinion that religious groups (or any group for that matter) of ten or more is medically dangerous.
The recent decision from the Court says that religious groups are allowed to endanger their congregants as long as they fly their religious freedom flag. Even if one is willing to accept the harm they can potentially do to themselves; what about the people who are not in their religious community. They too can be infected because the congregants are allowed to meet in potential super spreader groups. While your group may find it funny to yell fire in a crowded theater it is not allowed because of the harm of a stampede it might create thus creating a clear and present danger to the persons in the theater.
The meeting of religious groups of ten or more (usually not masked) fits the definition of a clear and present danger to not only the congregants and those they may interact with later. The only way that you can deny this is to reject the science involved in these prohibitions. Our conservative judges seem quite willing to do this. Sotomeyer implies this is the conservative judges unintended consequence in her dissenting remarks.
But to me the clincher is religious practice does not have to involve meeting in large groups. It might be a preferred practice but no self-respecting theologian or religious practitioner believes that it is necessary to meet in person for groups to practice their religious belief. I believe Jesus said 'where two or three gather I am there'. Many churches are proving this by the creativity they are exhibiting in zooming and you tubing their church services. Meeting in a group is a desirous but not necessary practice. So to limit this particular practice during a deadly pandemic is not to end religious freedom but to put a temporary hold on a religious practice that is a health threat to the members of a congregation and to the general public.
Slippery slope is not an argument, denial of science is not an acceptable argument, whining about the inconvenience of a pandemic is not an argument, saving lives and not allowing harm is the argument. You would think religious groups would prioritize this over a temporary halt of a religious practice. It is curious to me that conservative churches have allowed politics to enter the doors of their church even if it leads to the harming of their members.
The conservative justices in their decision have not only gone down a slippery path but have also opened the door for many other harmful practices. These practices will all be cloaked under the guise of religious freedom. Be forewarned the legal prohibitions against conversion therapy of gays by religious groups is being challenged in courts and is making its way up to the Supreme Court. Unless the court decides to return to deciding in favor of religious freedom being prohibited if there is harm to its congregants; we are opening a Pandora’s box of anything goes in Churches.