A triumph for religious freedom, or viral spreading? The US Supreme Court in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v Cuomo

During his Presidency, President Trump had the opportunity to appoint three new Justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • In 2017, the acerbic conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch replaced Justice Antonin Scalia;
  • In 2018, Justice Brett Kavanaugh replaced retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy; and
  • In 2020, Justice Amy Coney Barrett replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

These three appointments have tipped the balance of the Supreme Court strongly in favour of conservatives. The impact of a more conservative court in coming decades may be President Trump’s most enduring legacy.  It is also likely to have a significant impact on American health law.

Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v Cuomo, discussed in this post, provides an early example of the impact of the Trump appointments within the field of pandemic preparedness and control.

In Cuomo, the Supreme Court considered what is called the “Free Exercise Clause” of the First Amendment, which provides that “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]”.

Constitutional human rights protections…and health

In many cases, human rights guarantees strengthen the protection of public health.

Take, for example, free speech.  A free and fearless media is enormously important for its role in demanding government accountability.  In authoritarian regimes and one party states, where genuinely free and fair elections only happen elsewhere, the lack of a free media, and the lack of media diversity mean that the government’s performance in addressing health risks rarely becomes the subject of public scrutiny or critique.

This diminishes accountability.  (Yet it’s precisely this idea that the government is accountable to the people that is absent in authoritarian societies).

Freedom of speech and a free media also enable the sharing of information (fact, evidence) and opinion between citizens. This enables people to be informed, and it facilitates debate. It enables people to make their own informed choices, including during elections.

However, it’s not always the case that where the constitution guarantees human rights, that the vindication of these rights will advance the health of the population.

The protection of human rights, and health, are frequently, but in my view not always aligned (whatever the health and human rights school may assert).

This is partly because health is only one of a variety of values that are typically given constitutional protection.  Other values include, as noted, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.

It’s also partly because – in countries that guarantee human rights in their constitutions – the interpretation of the scope of the constitutional guarantee is a matter for the courts.

In countries where the courts are frequently called on to adjudicate on sensitive political matters, the appointment of justices to the highest appellate courts can become politicised.

Australia, in contrast to the United States, has very few constitutionally protected human rights (and although s 116 of Australia’s Constitution uses very similar language to the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, it has been interpreted very differently.

This does not mean that Australia is not a liberal democracy; what it means is that the balancing of human rights considerations is ultimately a matter for Parliaments – and our democratically elected representatives – rather than for the courts.

New York State’s microcluster Covid strategy

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo was well known for his daily briefings during mid 2020 as New York City bore the early brunt on Covid-19 infections in the United States. On 6 October 2020, Governor Cuomo signed Executive Order 202.68.

This order stated that the Health Department shall determine areas of the State that by virtue of being designated as red, orange or yellow zones, shall be subject to enhanced public health restrictions based on “cluster-based cases of Covid-19”.

In simple terms, yellow, orange and red zones were areas of the state where Covid-19 cases were rising.  A red zone was an area where the 7-day rolling positivity rate was above 4% for 10 days, and red zone restrictions were intended to prevent spread from a specific area.

A yellow zone was a warning zone where the 7-day rolling positivity rate was above 3% for 10 days.

Amongst other restrictions, in places designated as red zones, places of worship were restricted to “a capacity limit of 25% of maximum occupancy or 10 people, whichever is fewer”.

In places designated as orange zones, “houses of worship shall be subject to a maximum capacity limit of the lesser of 33% of maximum occupancy or 25 people, whichever is fewer”.

In other words, places of worship in red zones were restricted to 10 people, and places of worship in orange zones were restricted to 25 people.

In Australia, at the height of the initial lock-down period in New South Wales (around April 2020), places of worship were closed entirely, with limited exceptions.

I am not aware that this ever led to litigation.

[Covid-related restrictions on freedom of expression and movement, on the other hand, were another story, particularly when it came to the right to participate in demonstrations, including those in support of indigenous rights and the black lives matter movement.  See, for example, here, here, here and here].

At the time of writing (July 2021), New South Wales has been returned to hard lockdown in an effort to eliminate community outbreaks of the delta variant.

By executive order, places of public worship have been closed, although wedding services involving not more than 5 people can take place, and a priest or minister of religion can go to a person’s place to provide pastoral care.

Self-evidently, these restrictions neither denigrate religion nor deny its importance in people’s lives. There are many religions in Australia, many people of faith. These restrictions are temporary, as the chronological record of executive orders illustrates, as Australian State governments have clamped down hard on outbreaks, and then opened up again.

You’ll find the full list of Covid-related public health orders, applicable to NSW, here.

Religion comes first

Coming right in the middle of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot (also known as the Feast of Tabernacles), Orthodox Jewish groups saw Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order as religious discrimination.

An orthodox organisation, Agudath Israel of America, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, sought an injunction against the Executive Order on the basis that it violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

As noted above, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment provides that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

Although the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment refers to “Congress” (that is, the two Houses of Congress that are the supreme Federal law-making body), the constitutional guarantees also protect against interference by State governments, including Gubernatorial executive decrees.

A triumph for religious freedom…or viral spreading?

In Cuomo, the Supreme Court struck down Governor Cuomo’s order by a 5 to 4 majority.

The majority was made up of Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Samuel Alito, and the three Trump appointees: Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanagh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh also wrote concurring opinions. Chief Justice Roberts dissented, as did Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayer, and Elena Kagan.

The majority opinion is short.  On p 3, the majority justices agreed that the applicants had demonstrated that the Executive Order was not “neutral” to religion because while a synagogue or church in a red zone could not admit more than 10 persons, these restrictions did not apply to a list of “essential businesses”, which included “acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, garages” and plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics”.

I dare say the risks of Covid spread are rather less in an acupuncture facility than in a congregation of the faithful belting out “Onward Christian Soldiers”, but the Supreme Court majority didn’t take the point.*

Having concluded that the law was not neutral, the majority then applied “strict scrutiny”: a standard of constitutional scrutiny that requires the government to prove that the law is “narrowly tailored” to serve a “compelling” state interest.

The majority accepted that stemming the spread of Covid-19 is a compelling interest, but concluded that the regulations were not “narrowly tailored” because there was no evidence of Covid outbreaks among the applicants’ congregations.

What kind of body count would have provided satisfactory evidence, I wonder?

The majority also thought that less restrictive rules could be adopted to “minimize the risk to those attending religious services”, including by linking the maximum attendance at a religious service to the size of the church or synagogue. “[E]ven in a pandemic, the constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.  The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty”, the majority wrote (p 5).

Justice Gorsuch and the protection of the public’s health

A feature of the opinions of the majority Justices is their relative lack of deference to the experience, competence or expertise of public health leaders in crafting pre-emptive measures to reduce Covid spread.

There is no recognition in any of the majority opinions that the risk of Covid spread in churches and other houses of worship, where singing or chanting takes place and where hundreds of people may huddle together, is any different from stores and shops, where people wear masks, and are not so tightly packed.

On p 3 of this concurring opinion, Justice Gorsuch pointedly criticised the 100 year-old case of Jacobson v Massachusetts.  This was a case in which the Supreme Court upheld the right of the State of Massachusetts to require people to be vaccinated for smallpox, or pay a fine.

Justice Gorsuch pointed out (pp 3-4) that courts will apply rational basis review as the standard of scrutiny in their constitutional review of State laws, provided that fundamental or constitutionally protected rights are not implicated.

[Rational basis review is a lower level of constitutional scrutiny.  To withstand rational basis review, the State must show that the State’s laws or actions are “rationally related” to a “legitimate” interest.]

However, Justice Gorsuch pointed out that religious activities must be treated “at least as well as comparable secular activities unless it can meet the demands of strict scrutiny” (p 4).

Justice Gorsuch (pp 5-6) goes on to criticise the opinion of Chief Justice Roberts, who dissented, and to surmise that the dissentients on the court wished “to stay out of the way in times of crisis”.

He continues: “[T]here is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques.”

Real world consequences

As at July 2021, New York State (population 20.4 million) has had 2.1 million Covid-19 cases, and nearly 54,000 deaths.

Australia (population 26 million) has had 31,000 cases and 910 deaths. With emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants, things could change quickly.

The US has certainly struggled – really struggled – to effectively control the spread of Covid-19, and the world has looked on.  The loss of life has been horrific, and extraordinary for such a wealthy, capable country.

Thoughtful commentary explores why: see, for example, here, here, here and here.

For lovers of democracy and human rights, America’s experience has been tragic in another respect: it adds heft to the narrative of autocrats and dictators that democratic government is ill-fitted to the challenges of the age.

What does make sense, in a democratic society where the rule of law operates, where elected officials are fulfilling the mandate granted by voters, is for them to be afforded a measure of deference – of operational space – to design instruments that prevent disease transmission and loss of life, in an environment that remains substantially uncertain.

If strict scrutiny is ever used as a weapon to paralyse government during a public health emergency, it will come at a price.

Why? Because swift and decisive government action to stamp out outbreaks of lethal variants is the key to saving lives, at least in countries where substantial numbers of the population remain unvaccinated. Viruses don’t care about human rights, and they never went to Law School. They don’t care if you are sincere in your beliefs or if you “truly believe”. They just jump from person to person when you get too close.

Ironically, when government does get it right, and no one dies, it all suddenly starts to look like overkill.

In his dissent, Chief Justice Roberts stated that: “[I]t is a significant matter to override determinations made by public health officials concerning what is necessary for public safety in the midst of a deadly pandemic”.

His Honour wrote: “I do not regard my dissenting colleagues as “cutting the Constitution lose during a pandemic” or “shelter[ing] in place when the Constitution is under attack”.

Chief Justice Roberts then paraphrased Jacobson v Massachusetts (197 U.S. 11 (1905), 38, writing that “[o]ur Constitution principally entrusts [t]he safety and the health of the people to the politically accountable officials of the States to ‘guard and protect’.

It’s not clear, he says, which part of this phrase is so discomfiting to the majority justices.

Justice Breyer, in dissent, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, expressed similar sentiments (p 27/33).

What does seem clear, when you read the Cuomo decision, is that the new majority on the US Supreme Court will be far less likely to defer to expert opinion (however well founded) or to politically accountable State officials when it comes to scrutinising emergency regulations. It doesn’t bode well for elected officials seeking to discharge the one public duty that most libertarians would grudgingly concede: keeping the body count down during outbreaks of a deadly, contagious disease.

*Indeed, congregational singing was an interesting footnote in a subsequent case in which the Supreme Court struck down a Californian ban on indoor worship services. In South Bay United Pentecostal Church v Newsom, Justice Gorsuch wrote: “Of course we are not scientists, but….[e]ven in times of crisis – perhaps especially in times of crisis – we have a duty to hold governments to the Constitution” (p 5/15). It was left to Justice Kagan, dissenting with Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, to respond: “Justices of this court are not scientists. Nor do we know much about public health policy. Yet today the Court displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging epidemic. The court orders California to weaken its restrictions on public gatherings by making a special exception for worship services….Under the Court’s injunction, the State must instead treat worship services like secular activities that pose a much lesser danger…” (p 10/15).

Sydney Law School will be offering Critical Issues in Public Health Law, a postgraduate unit that explores Australian and international responses to infectious disease, as part of its Master of Health Law, in semester 1, 2022. See here or here for more information.

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