On Nov. 25, the U.S. Supreme Court granted injunctive relief to the Roman Catholic diocese of Brooklyn, NY. The five Roman Catholic justices comprising the court majority decided that the fiscal needs of the Catholic Church superseded states’ rights to decide what public health practices were best for their residents, even during a pandemic. This ruling contrasts with the justices’ previous ruling on gerrymandering, where they said that federal courts should not interfere with states’ rights to set voting rules.
Besides its flagrant reversal of states’ rights to protect public health, this ruling was notable for its sophistry. The first fallacy was the assertion that Governor Cuomo imposed “... very severe restrictions on attendance at religious services...” that infringed on the free exercise of religion. In fact, Zoom-based attendance and parking lot drive-in attendance at religious services remained completely free of restrictions. It was only in-person attendance at religious services that was restricted but Catholic churches depend on in-person attendance for much of their income.
The second fallacy was the red herring assertion that New York’s COVID-19 restrictions were unfairly targeting religious “facilities” compared to “comparable” secular facilities. The social distancing regulations are designed to regulate behaviors, not facilities. Religious services-related behaviors like singing, chanting, sermonizing and praying out loud have been shown to contribute to community transmission of the coronavirus but not so the quiet purchasing of alcohol or marijuana. To criticize state governments for imposing fewer restrictions on alcohol sales than on in-person church services was disingenuous and misleading.
A third fallacy was to argue that the Archdiocese’s absence of COVID-19 surges when the Archdiocese followed COVID-19-related restrictions showed that the social distancing restrictions were not needed. These instances of deceptive reasoning typify political speech, not judicial reasoning. This decision reflects the Catholic justices’ intent to use deceptive reasoning to justify use of their newly-won majority political power to overrule the Constitution and legal precedent. Their ultimate goal is to impose their Catholic values on the 80 percent of us who are not Catholic even if it undermines state efforts to reduce community transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.