As the nation begins to formally recover from the burdensome government regulations imposed these last few years with the COVID-19 pandemic, we must be careful to not venture down the same path should this nation experience another pandemic. Individual liberties, livelihood and religious interests were put on the backburner in defiance of the Constitution. Governors and mayors in big cities in various states abused their leadership positions with lockdowns and restrictions that did not consider all the viable Constitutional and scientific interests. We reflect briefly on some points of interest and encourage our leaders and courts to take notice of these issues so we can identify these infringements on Constitutional liberties.
COVID and Equal Protection- Churches
Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo
Former New York governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order limiting attendance at worship services based on zones allegedly determined by COVID rates that did not apply to other entities such as liquor stores and grocery stores. The Diocese of Brooklyn brought suit due to unfair restrictions placed on churches compared to other entities and sought a preliminary injunction to stop its enforcement. In its majority opinion, the Supreme Court concluded that the executive order was not neutral by nature and unjustly targeted religious interests. It would not survive strict scrutiny of government imposed limits on enumerated First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights and was not narrowly tailored to properly serve the government interest of public health.
COVID and Healthcare Workers
Dr. A v. Hochul
Former New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a vaccine mandate for the state healthcare workers that allowed for religious exemptions and medical exemptions. New governor Kathy Hochul came into office and removed the religious exemptions while maintaining the medical exemptions. The healthcare workers were forced to vaccinate or risk losing their jobs. Doctors and nurses petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for emergency relief and were denied in a 6-3 decision. The Court was persuaded by the reasoning that the COVID-19 vaccination requirement was similar to that of other common vaccination requirements such as measles and rubella. Additionally, New York cited examples of faith leaders and religious teachings that it perceived to indicate that there was no religious and ethical quandary if being vaccinated for COVID-19.
This argument New York presented could be construed to be especially troubling as it waded into the area of assessing the validity of faith belief. While it cited to statements made by Pope Francis among other leaders, it did not provide a comprehensive outline of Catholic teaching that also finds that there is not an ethical quandary if you choose not to be vaccinated. Catholicism allows for free will considerations. The state put forth information that is not harmonious with comprehensive bioethical considerations that could plausibly form a complete legal position on matters of faith.
Seeds of Discord
Another serious point to consider is that because the debate did in fact breach the parameters of essentially “adjudicating authentic faith belief”, a precedent is in fact presented that could conceivably be used if Christianity or Catholic belief interests come under assault in other areas such as discrimination.
For example, it is possible, more specifically on the issue of family and marriage. There are Protestant congregations that may teach a more confined and traditional view of marriage under the same broader umbrella label as “Episcopalian” or “Methodist” as other congregations that do not advocate for a more traditional definition. If there were to be a case with a small business owner that harbors objections, but was under the general term of one of the Protestant denominations, which teaching would the court follow or be persuaded by? It could set up a faith battle with lay civil servants adjudicating matters that are in dispute within faith sects. A troubling pattern can begin to form, thus setting up further and more heated conflicts between religion and government.
We must be watchful of the troubling actions taken by state leaders that were not reigned in by our judiciary and most importantly the seemingly unbridled deference that courts throughout the nation gave to governors that were not prepared for a serious public emergency. The panic that ensued from COVID-19 and the overly strict actions that have threatened equal protection interests and individual liberty must be recognized and perhaps addressed legislatively to place ample checks on government so a proper balance is struck with regard to proper safety considerations and individual liberty.