Five Justices of the United States Supreme Court just declared war on science by overriding the judgment of New York State’s governor and health-care professionals and nullifying emergency limitations on in-person religious worship in New York City areas most heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic—doing so just as the city is on the precipice of another uncontrollable public health disaster. This astoundingly reckless action by the new reactionary court majority established with the appointment of Amy Coney Barret amounts to an opening salvo in what is certain to be an ongoing judicial campaign against scientifically informed government officials the justices believe have been targeting “traditional” religion.
Earlier this year, a five-justice majority, comprised of the Supreme Court’s then four relatively liberal Justices (including the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and Chief Justice Roberts, rejected applications to void two similar pandemic-related regulations of indoor worship services as violative of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. As Roberts explained, the court has long reasoned that the “Constitution principally entrusts ‘[t]he safety and health of the people’ to the politically accountable officials of the states,” who should generally not be “subject to second-guessing by an ‘unelected federal judiciary,’ which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people.”
But the court’s most reactionary justices bristled at the idea that they should defer to the public health decisions of elected officials, even—indeed, especially—if those decisions are based on the advice of medical and scientific professionals. This is because they and others on the far right believe that scientific institutions, and largely Democratic public officials, are engaged in a massive scheme to undermine “traditional” religion and that the court must intervene as the protector of the faithful. With Barrett joining the court, the newly empowered radical reactionaries have shifted to playing offense.