U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito was a featured speaker for the Federalist Society’s 2020 National Lawyers Convention on Thursday. Alito spoke about religious liberty and criticized restrictions under COVID-19.
“I’m now going to say something that I hope will not be twisted or misunderstood. But I have spent more than 20 years in Washington, so I’m not overly optimistic. In any event, here goes. The pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty,” Alito said. “Now, notice what I am not saying or even implying, I am not diminishing the severity of the viruses threat to public health. And putting aside what I will say shortly about a few Supreme Court cases, I’m not saying anything about the legality of COVID restrictions. Nor am I saying anything about whether any of these restrictions represent good public policy. I’m a judge, not a policymaker. All that i’m saying is this. And I think it is an indisputable statement of fact, we have never before seen restrictions as severe, extensive and prolonged as those experienced, for most of 2020.”
“It pains me to say this, but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored, right,” Alito said. “And that marks a surprising turn of events. Consider where things stood in the 1990s. And to me, at least that does not seem like the Jurassic age.”
“When a Supreme Court decision called employment division versus Smith, cut back sharply on the protection provided by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” he continued. “Congress was quick to respond. It passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). To ensure broad protection for religious liberty. The law had almost universal support. In the house, the vote was unanimous. In the Senate, it was merely 97 to three, and the bill was enthusiastically signed by President Clinton today that widespread support has vanished. When states have considered or gone ahead and adopted their own versions of reference. They have been threatened with punishing economic boycotts.”
I’m now going to say something that I hope will not be twisted or misunderstood. But I have spent more than 20 years in Washington, so I’m not overly optimistic. In any event, here goes. The pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty. Now, notice what I am not saying or even implying, I am not diminishing the severity of the viruses threat to public health. And putting aside what I will say shortly about a few Supreme Court cases, I’m not saying anything about the legality of COVID restrictions. Nor am I saying anything about whether any of these restrictions represent good public policy. I’m a judge, not a policymaker. All that i’m saying is this. And I think it is an indisputable statement of fact, we have never before seen restrictions as severe, extensive and prolonged as those experienced, for most of 2020.
Think of all the live events that would otherwise be protected by the right to freedom of speech, live speeches, conferences, lectures, meetings, think of worship services, churches closed on Easter Sunday, synagogues closed for Passover on Yom Kippur War. Think about access to the courts, or the constitutional right to a speedy trial. trials in federal courts have virtually disappeared in many places who could have imagined that the COVID crisis has served as a sort of constitutional stress test. And in doing so it has highlighted disturbing trends that were already present before the virus struck.
One of these is the dominance of lawmaking by executive Fiat rather than legislation. The vision of early 20th century progressives and the new dealers of the 1930s was the policymaking would shift from narrow minded elected legislators, to an elite group of appointed experts in a word, the policymaking would become more scientific. That dream has been realized to a large extent. Every year administrative agencies acting under broad delegations of authority churn out huge volumes of regulations that dwarfs the statutes enacted by the people’s elected representatives. And what have we seen in the pandemic sweeping restrictions imposed for the most part, under statutes that confer enormous executive discretion?.
We had a covid related case from Nevada. So I will take the Nevada law as an example.
Under that law, if the governor finds that there is, quote, a natural technological or manmade emergency, or disaster of major proportions, the governor can perform and exercise such functions, powers and duties as are necessary to promote and secure the safety and protection of the civilian population. To say that this provision confers broad discretion would be an understatement.
Now, again, let me be clear, I’m not disputing that broad wording may be appropriate in statutes designed to address a wide range of emergencies, the nature of which may be hard to anticipate, and I’m not passing judgment on this particular issue. I want to make two different points.
First, what we see in this statute, and and what was done under it is a particularly developed example of where the law in general has been going for some time, in the direction of government by executive officials, who were thought to implement policies based on expertise. And in the purest form, scientific expertise.
Second, laws giving an official so much discretion can of course, be abused. And whatever one may think about the COVID restrictions, we surely don’t want them to become a recurring feature after the pandemic has passed. All sorts of things can be called an emergency or disaster of major proportions. Simply slapping on that label cannot provide the ground for abrogating our most fundamental rights. And whenever fundamental rights are restricted, the Supreme Court and other courts cannot close their eyes.
So what are the courts doing in this crisis, when the constitutionality of COVID restrictions has been challenged in court, the leading authority cited in their defense is a 1905 Supreme Court decision called Jacobson versus Massachusetts. The case concerned an outbreak of smallpox in Cambridge, and the Court upheld the constitutionality of an ordinance that required vaccinations to prevent the disease from spreading. Now I’m all in favor of preventing dangerous things from issuing out of Cambridge and infecting the rest of the country and the world. It would be good if what originates in Cambridge stayed in Cambridge. But to return to the serious point, it’s important to keep Jacobson in perspective, its primary holding rejected a substantive due process challenge to a local measure that targeted a problem of limited scope. It did not involve sweeping restrictions imposed across the country for an extended period. And it does not mean that whenever there is an emergency, executive officials have unlimited unreviewable discretion.
Just as the COVID restrictions have highlighted the movement toward rule by experts, litigation about those restrictions, has pointed up emerging trends in the assessment of individual rights. This is especially evident with respect to religious liberty. It pains me to say this, but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored, right. And that marks a surprising turn of events. Consider where things stood in the 1990s. And to me, at least that does not seem like the Jurassic age. When a Supreme Court decision called employment division versus Smith, cut back sharply on the protection provided by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Congress was quick to respond. It passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). To ensure broad protection for religious liberty. The law had almost universal support. In the house, the vote was unanimous. In the Senate, it was merely 97 to three, and the bill was enthusiastically signed by President Clinton today that widespread support has vanished. When states have considered or gone ahead and adopted their own versions of reference. They have been threatened with punishing economic boycotts.
Some of our cases illustrate this same trend. Take the protracted campaign against the Little Sisters of the Poor in order of Catholic nuns, the Little Sisters or women who have dedicated their lives to caring for the elderly, poor, regardless of religion. They run homes that have one high praise. Here’s some of the testimonials filed in our court by residents of their homes. The Little Sisters, quote, do everything to make us happy. I feel I’m part of the family and that’s a great feeling. They will keep you alive 10 years longer than anyplace else because they love you. Carol hassel in a nutshell, I would say this about the Little Sisters, a little bit of heaven fell from the sky one day and landed in my apartment.
Despite this inspiring work, the little sisters have been under unrelenting attack for the better part of a decade. Why because they refused to allow their health insurance plan to provide contraceptives to their employees. For that they were targeted by the prior administration. If they did not knuckle under and violate a tenet of their faith. They face crippling fines, fines that would likely have forced them to shut down their homes.
The current administration tried to prevent that by adopting a new rule. But the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey supported by 17, under other states, challenged that new rule. Last spring, the Little Sisters won their most recent battle in the Supreme Court, I should add by a vote of seven to two, but the case was sent back to the Court of Appeals. And the Little Sisters legal fight goes on and on.
Here’s another example from our cases, the state of Washington adopted a rule requiring every pharmacy to carry every form of contraceptive approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including so called morning after pills, which destroy an embryo after fertilization. A pharmacy called Ralph’s was owned by a Christian family opposed to abortion, they refuse to carry abortifacients. If a woman came to the store with a prescription for such a drug, the pharmacy referred her to a nearby store that was happy to provide it. And there were 30 such stores within five miles of Ralph’s. But to the state of Washington, that was not good enough, Ralph had to provide the drugs itself or get out of the state.
One more example, consider what a member of the Colorado Human Rights Commission said to jack Phillips, the owner of the now notorious masterpiece cake shop, when he refused to create a cake celebrating a same sex wedding. She said that freedom of religion had been used, quote, to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust, we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination, you can easily see the point. For many today, religious liberty is not a cherished freedom. It’s often just an excuse for bigotry, and it can’t be tolerated, even when there is no evidence that anybody has been harmed…
If what I have said so far does not convince you that religious liberty is in danger of becoming a second class right, consider a case that came shortly after the Nevada case. The FDA has long had a role providing that a woman who wants a medication abortion must go to a clinic to pick up the drug. The idea is that it’s important for the woman to receive instruction about the drug at that time. The rule was first adopted in 2000. And it has been kept on the books ever since. A few weeks ago, however, a federal district judge in Maryland issued an order prohibiting the FDA from enforcing this drug any place in the country. Enforcement he found would interfere with the right of women to get abortions. Why? Because some women fearful of contracting covid if they left their homes, would hesitate about making the trip to a clinic. Now when the judge made this decision, the governor of Maryland presumably advised by public health experts had apparently concluded that Marylanders could safely engage in all sorts of activities outside the home, such as visiting an indoor exercise facility, a hair or nail salon and the state’s casinos. If deference was appropriate in the California and Nevada cases, then surely we should have differed to the federal Food and Drug Administration on an issue of drug safety. But no, in this instance, the writing question was the abortion right not the right to religious liberty, and the abortion right prevailed.
The rights of the free exercise of religion is not the only ones cherished freedom that is falling in the estimation of some segments of the population. Support for freedom of speech is also in danger. And COVID rules have restricted speech in unprecedented ways. As I mentioned, attendance at speeches, lectures, conferences, conventions, rallies, and other similar events has been banned or limited. And some of these restrictions are alleged to have included discrimination based on the viewpoint of the speaker.
Even before the pandemic, there was growing hostility to the expression of unfashionable views. And that too, was the surprising development. Here’s a marker in 1972, the comedian George Carlin began to perform a routine called the seven words you can’t say on TV. Today, you can see shows on your TV screen in which the dialog appears at time to consist almost entirely of those words. Carlin’s list seems like a quaint relic, but it would be easy to put together a new list called things you can’t say if you’re a student or professor at a college or university or an employee of many big corporations. And there wouldn’t be just seven items on that list. 70 times seven would be closer to the mark. I won’t go down the list, but I’ll mention one that I’ve discussed in a published opinion. You can’t say that marriage is the union between one man and one woman. Until very recently, that’s what the vast majority of Americans thought. Now it’s considered bigotry.
That this would happen after our decision in Obergefell should not have come as a surprise. Yes, the opinion of the court included words meant to calm the fears of those who claim to traditional views on marriage. But I could say and so did the other justices in dissent, where the decision would lead wrote the following. I assume that those who claim to old beliefs will be able able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes. But if they repeat those of us in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots, and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools. That is just what is coming to pass. One of the great challenges for the Supreme Court going forward will be to protect freedom of speech. Although that freedom is falling out of favor in some circles, we need to do whatever we can to prevent it from becoming a second tier constitutional right.
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