In a serious attack on the constitutional right of freedom to worship, the U.S. Supreme Court voted July 24 to refuse to suspend a public health order imposed by Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak limiting attendance at church services. It was part of a series of edicts issued under the guise of stopping the spread of coronavirus.
This is the second such ruling by the black-robed arbiters of “justice” in the past two months restricting the First Amendment’s blanket protection for the right to worship. These are rights working people need today to defend ourselves against government interference in our lives and struggles.
In both cases the four so-called liberal justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — were joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, an appointee of George W. Bush, in the majority. In the latest case they failed to give any explanation for the ruling, simply writing, “The application for injunctive relief presented to Justice Kagan and by her referred to the Court is denied.”
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, a small church in rural Nevada, about 45 miles east of Reno, had filed a lawsuit against the Democratic governor, saying his order limiting to 50 people the number who could attend indoor religious services discriminated against churches, violating First Amendment rights. The governor has allowed casinos and other businesses to admit up to 50% of their capacity.
The church said it wanted to conduct services with 90 people present, a figure amounting to 50% of their fire code capacity. Church officials made clear this would be done with appropriate social distancing and other measures to counter the spread of COVID-19.
Lawyers for the church wrote, “If the governor deems it acceptable for secular assemblies to occur at 50 percent capacity at casinos, restaurants, bars, gyms and fitness facilities, indoor and outdoor theme parks, bowling alleys, water parks, pools, arcades and more, he must apply the 50 percent capacity rule to constitutionally protected worship services.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a succinct and pointed dissenting opinion in defense of the Constitution. “This is a simple case,” he said. “Under the Governor’s edict, a 10-screen ‘multiplex’ may host 500 moviegoers at any time. A casino, too, may cater to hundreds at once.
“Large numbers and close quarters are fine in such places. But churches, synagogues, and mosques are banned from admitting more than 50 worshippers. But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion. The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”
In contrast, Linda Greenhouse, in a July 30 New York Times op-ed column hailed the decision, claiming the justices who voted against disproportionately restricting attendance at church services were “seeking to elevate religious interests over those of secular society”! She denounced them for seeking to “turn a public health issue into a religious crusade.”
These rulings come down as there are increasing attacks on Jews, Catholics, Muslims and others over their religion. Jews in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere have been scapegoated as responsible for the spread of coronavirus. Synagogues have been targeted for police raids, Jewish-owned stores have been shot up and Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn have been attacked on the street.
Dangerous to workers’ rights
Over the past month statues of Jesus Christ have been damaged in Colorado, New York, Massachusetts, Missouri and elsewhere. On Sunday, July 11, a minivan crashed through the front door of the Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala, Florida, and the driver threw an incendiary device, setting the church on fire during preparation for services.
Mosques have been attacked and Muslims threatened and set upon.
In the earlier case in May, the Supreme Court rejected a similar challenge by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California, which sought to overturn an executive order by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
In defending the court’s ruling in that case, Roberts wrote, “Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.”
Following the victory of the First American Revolution, the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution under the pressure of protests by small farmers demanding explicit written guarantees against government interference in their lives and political activities.
The very first of these amendments forbids the government from establishing a state religion and from prohibiting anyone from free exercise of the religion of their choice. It also forbids the government from placing any limit on freedom of speech, or of the press, or “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Roberts argued in the California case that state officials must be given flexibility to make judgments when it comes to public health. But the Constitution permits no such thing! The Bill of Rights was forced on the government precisely to protect certain “inalienable” rights from all government interference.
“Flexibility” on rights aims to allow the capitalist rulers to have more play in attacking political rights and workers’ struggles. And this is especially dangerous in the context of today’s partisan factional warfare among the bourgeois parties and politicians.
Defending the right to freedom of worship and all the rights written into the Constitution remains central to advancing struggles by the working class against the capitalist rulers today.