On Oct. 27, 2020, Judge Amy Coney Barrett was sworn in as a justice of the Supreme Court, and now, just over a month later, she has already contributed to what I would consider a very important and very telling ruling. The ruling was made on Nov. 25, and it featured Barrett’s first notable and public vote as a justice on the court.
I believe that this ruling was important because it showcased the possible dangers of a “separation of church and state” philosophy, and I find it telling because it shows how a deeply religious judge can sway the vote on the Supreme Court. These are fairly intense accusations, and I fully intend to back them up, but first let’s start with an overview describing what this court case was actually about.
The ruling itself decided that the state of New York would not be allowed to impose certain capacity restrictions on places of worship within the state, such as churches or synagogues. New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo presented a plan involving different zones mapped out over New York that would restrict the amount of people allowed in certain areas. Both the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America filed applications against these restrictions, claiming that they broke the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and were targeted specifically at houses of worship. At the time, most of the churches and synagogues in question fell into either red zones, which allowed a capacity of 10, or orange zones, which allowed a capacity of 25. The Court was split 5 to 4, but ultimately ruled in favor of the applications presented by the Roman Catholic Diocese and Agudath Israel, agreeing that the restrictions violated the Free Exercise Clause.
Now, why would this ruling be considered dangerous? Well, both of the applications and the Supreme Court used the Free Exercise Clause as their main argument in favor of this ruling. This is the clause where the idea of the separation of church and state originated in American law. There is no doubt that it has contributed positively to American life in many ways, but I believe that there have also been some times when it was used to the detriment of American society. I understand the issues that could arise from a government dictating religious practices, but if there was ever an appropriate time for the U.S. government to intervene, that time is now. We are in the middle of a global pandemic. The United States is one of the most affected countries, and in the past few weeks we have seen the highest rise in daily new cases since the spring. The United States needs its freedoms, religious and otherwise, but right now more than anything else it needs control over this pandemic. That requires restrictions over everyone, regardless of religious affiliation, and it requires everyone to temporarily suspend some freedoms in exchange for the health and safety of the entire country.
Why was the ruling on this case telling? Amy Coney Barrett was elected to the Supreme Court as a known and devout Catholic. At the time, this caused many people, including myself, to doubt her ability to separate her duty as a judge from her values as a Catholic. After this ruling, it seems to me that these doubts were not unfounded. As stated before, the ruling was passed with a split of 5 to 4, with Barrett and four conservatives against Chief Justice John Roberts and three liberals. It seems clear to me that Justice Barrett opted for religious freedom over the health and safety of the public. It also seems clear that she played a vital role in the final decision. Before she was sworn in, we know that her seat on the Court was occupied by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal. We also know that Justice Ginsburg had previously voted for and achieved the opposite outcome on similar pandemic-related religious freedom cases in both California and Nevada. The split for those past rulings? 5 to 4. Based on this evidence, it is easy for me to see how Justice Barrett, a very religious individual, has managed to secure a pro-religious ruling from a court that had previously ruled otherwise. She is certainly making an impact on our country. However, based on the seemingly biased result of her first ruling, it is still unclear how positive or negative that overall impact will be.
This is the opinion of Isaac Tackman, a junior screenwriting major from Jefferson, WI. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow and tweet comments to @LALoyolan on Twitter, and like the Loyolan on Facebook.