On Wednesday, Nov. 25, the Supreme Court overturned New York state’s restriction on attendance at religious services amid the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming that New York infringed on freedom of religion. As a result of this decision, New Yorkers may now freely worship in large numbers, despite an increase in COVID-19 cases across the United States. This ruling may result in more COVID-19 cases and more deaths than ever before. Cold weather, the gatherings associated with the holiday season and the spike in attendance at religious services for Christmas and Hanukkah combined will not help. Furthermore, this ruling is indicative of future rulings of the Supreme Court. The majority of this Supreme Court is conservative and will likely rule accordingly in favor of exceptions for religious practice, as they did on Nov. 25. Though not surprising given the justices’ political views, overturning New York’s restriction on attending religious services raises New Yorkers’ risk of contracting the coronavirus. Their decision also showcases that this Supreme Court values religious freedom over the right to live. At the end of the day, no religious sentiments should be valued above the health of many. Life must trump religion, always.

Though religion should not come before human life in any circumstance, it can also be argued that New York’s restriction does not infringe upon the freedom of religion guaranteed in the Constitution. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the First Amendment gives Americans the right to practice whatever religion they choose, or no religion at all. However, restricting in-person attendance at religious services does not enforce a religion, or lack thereof, on New Yorkers. Those affected by the restriction are still free to subscribe to any faith of their choosing: They simply must observe that faith safely, given the unique circumstances determined by the pandemic. Many historians also argue that First Amendment rights were given not to restrict state governments, but the federal government, making New York’s restriction constitutional through some lenses.

In normal times, I would agree with the justices in their stance that the government should not be able to determine how people choose to practice their respective religions. But we are not in normal times. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted government intervention in many areas in which the government is not usually involved. Cities and states have instituted stay-at-home orders and mask mandates to minimize risk of contracting COVID-19, and these orders were deemed constitutional. Why, all of a sudden, do individual liberties come before national health when religion is involved? 

Regardless of the constitutionality of the restriction, we can all agree that it would likely mitigate the impacts of the pandemic in the holiday season. Any effective method of deterring people from gathering in large numbers will contribute to the national effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Earlier in the year, religious gatherings facilitated community spread of COVID-19. Combine that inevitable spread with the flu season, the cold weather and the upcoming major religious holidays in the U.S., disaster is bound to strike. Though the Supreme Court has won the favor of many religious individuals in the U.S. with the ruling, its decision will likely lead to  thousands of COVID-19 diagnoses.

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling putting millions at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, there is some good news: New Yorkers, and all Americans, still have the agency to make the right decisions for themselves and their communities. Many places of worship and religious organizations stream services so attendees can practice religion from the safety of their own homes. Those who would otherwise be impacted by the restriction, and those who wouldn’t, can look into this alternative to in-person services to avoid endangering themselves and others. People may also safely gather with a few others that practice the same religion, socially distanced either outdoors or indoors with masks, and conduct a smaller service to maintain the sense of community that underpins religion while also being responsible.

Practicing religion can be of the utmost importance to some, leading them to believe the freedom to congregate supersedes any necessary public health measures. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of these individuals and in favor of religion when pitted against national health. However, many religious texts hold that one must prioritize health. Such texts also often stress the importance of the “Golden Rule”: that one must treat others the way they would want to be treated. We all hope that our fellow community members consider our health in their actions, so we must consider their health in ours. The Supreme Court failed to recognize the societal and religious implications of their ruling, and, in doing so, put millions at risk and contradicted many of the teachings they so eagerly attempted to defend.

Ilana Mermelstein can be reached at imerm@umich.edu.

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