The Supreme Court has once again put the so-called coronavirus “emergency” ahead of the rights of religious employees. It should not have done so.
In a 6-3 decision on Monday, the court rejected a request by 20 New York healthcare workers, nearly all of whom identified as Catholic, to grant a religious exemption to the state’s vaccine mandate. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch disagreed, with Gorsuch writing the dissenting opinion.
Gorsuch’s opinion sums up the court’s mistake perfectly. He notes that New York openly and proudly discriminates against religious medical professionals by refusing to grant religious exemptions to its vaccine mandate despite allowing medical exemptions. Indeed, Gov. Kathy Hochul admitted she removed religious exemptions from the mandate “intentionally” because she believes those who resist vaccination “aren’t listening to God and what God wants.”
"These applicants are not 'anti-vaxxers' who object to all vaccines," Gorsuch wrote. "Instead, the applicants explain, they cannot receive a COVID–19 vaccine because their religion teaches them to oppose abortion in any form, and because each of the currently available vaccines has depended upon abortion-derived fetal cell lines in its production or testing."
The state might disagree with these healthcare workers, but it cannot deny them the right to hold and live according to their convictions, Gorsuch continued.
“The Free Exercise Clause protects not only the right to hold unpopular religious beliefs inwardly and secretly. It protects the right to live out those beliefs publicly in 'the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts,'” he said.
Today, we do not just fail the applicants. We fail ourselves. It is among our Nation’s proudest boasts that, “[i]f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in [matters of] religion.” In this country, “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit . . . protection.” Nor is the free exercise of religion “limited to beliefs which are shared by all of the members of a religious sect.” Millions have fled to this country to escape persecution for their unpopular or unorthodox religious beliefs, attracted by America’s promise that “[e]very citizen here is in his own country. To the protestant it is a protestant country; to the catholic, a catholic country; and the jew, if he pleases, may establish in it his New Jerusalem.”
As today’s case shows, however, sometimes our promises outrun our actions. Sometimes dissenting religious beliefs can seem strange and bewildering. In times of crisis, this puzzlement can evolve into fear and anger. [But] in the end, it is always the failure to defend the Constitution’s promises that leads to this Court’s greatest regrets. … The test of this Court’s substance lies in its willingness to defend more than the shadow of freedom in the trying times, not just the easy ones.
As the pandemic continues and government officials become more aggressive in their efforts to combat it, the court will likewise have to become more aggressive in protecting an individual's rights. This issue is not going away, and Gorsuch is probably correct in predicting the court will have another case similar to this one soon. We should hope the court makes the right decision next time.