In Defense of Religious Freedom

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a welcome decision recently, upholding Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio’s challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on religious gatherings in the wake of an upsurge in coronavirus cases. 

As recounted by Catholic News Service, the Diocese of Brooklyn first went into federal court in October to challenge the new restrictions, and on Nov. 12 asked the Supreme Court to issue “an injunction against the governor’s executive order limiting in-person congregations at houses of worship to 10 or 25 people.”

The diocese noted that such arbitrary limits did not take into account the expansive size of various churches, which would have allowed for greater numbers with room for safe social distancing. Moreover, while imposing such stringent restrictions on religious gatherings, the diocese noted, the governor’s mandate allowed “numerous secular businesses to operate without any capacity restrictions.”

In a 5-4 ruling on November 5, the Supreme Court agreed that Cuomo’s order did not appear neutral and seemed to single out “houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch was particularly pointed about this double standard, writing sarcastically in a separate opinion that “It may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike.”

It has also been fine, in Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s New York as in Democrat-run cities and states across America, for massive demonstrations to be held in which participants packed together shoulder-to-shoulder, shouting and chanting, with no concerns about social distancing or wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID.

Indeed, this was the second time a federal court rebuked Cuomo for subjecting churches to an unfair double standard. The first was back in June, when U.S. District Court Judge Gary Sharpe contrasted restrictions on faith gatherings imposed by Cuomo and de Blasio with their allowing massive anti-police protests to proceed without any restrictions whatsoever—“encouraging,” the judge said, “what they knew was a flagrant disregard of the outdoor limits and social distancing rules.” In doing so, he said, de Blasio and Cuomo “sent a clear message that mass protests are deserving of preferential treatment.”

Only certain mass protests, however. Anyone think that Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser—who also looked the other way when protesters disregarded COVID safety restrictions—will be so forgiving next month if March for Life participants similarly blow off COVID safety measures? That is, if city authorities allow the pro-life march to happen at all! Of course, if it does happen, it seems certain—given the more than 40-year history of these incredibly peaceful massive gatherings—that the vast majority of pro-life marchers will conscientiously follow COVID safety protocols, committed as they are to the sanctity of human life.

Similarly, there is probably no institution that has been more conscientious about following coronavirus safety protocols than the Catholic Church. Here in America—and indeed, throughout the world, under Pope Francis’ leadership—the Church has bent over backwards, not only to comply with government public safety mandates, but even to go beyond them.

For months, our parishes and dioceses prohibited indoor services, so that we could not attend Mass, let alone receive the Eucharist. During this time, a number of priests and bishops extended themselves in creative ways, holding outdoor Eucharistic processions or offering drive-up confessions so that we could avail ourselves of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Some began offering outdoor Masses when and where those were permitted. When indoor Masses were first resumed, here on Long Island and I’m sure elsewhere as well, Communion was not offered. When it was finally restored, it was moved to the very end of the liturgy, and we were told to exit the Church immediately upon receiving, with no time to kneel in prayer after partaking of the body and blood of Jesus.

The pews continue to be roped or taped off to maintain proper social distancing, and we still have no missalettes with which to follow the readings or join in the hymns. Now with Christmas approaching—a day when our churches are always packed—extra Masses are being scheduled in most parishes to accommodate all who wish to attend while still maintaining safe social distancing. And here on Long Island, whenever I walk through downtown Rockville Centre, seat of our diocese, I notice that while the rest of the village is bustling—office buildings, banks, restaurants, entertainment venues all open and active—our diocesan pastoral center remains closed up tight, going now on ten months.

Given this exemplary record of sacrifice in service to public safety, Catholics and the Church merit the utmost respect from government when we assert our right to worship and our ability to do so without endangering the public health.

Certainly, we deserve not to be singled out for “especially harsh treatment” by our self-proclaimed Catholic governor.

Kudos to Bishop DiMarzio for standing firm against such harsh treatment, and in defense of religious freedom. And kudos to the Supreme Court, whose ruling in this case—joined by President Trump’s three appointees—affords at least a modicum of hope that they will be a bulwark against all the attacks on religious liberty sure to come in the difficult times ahead.

Published by Rick Hinshaw

I have spent the last three decades in primarily Catholic communications work: as a reporter, news editor, columnist, and for eight years editor of The Long Island Catholic; several years as co-host and co-producer of The Catholic Forum program on the diocesan Telecare channel; two stints as Director of Communications for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; and a year as Associate Director for Communications at the New York State Catholic Conference. I also served for three years as Public Information Officer for the late Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon, a staunchly Catholic and active pro-life leader. Over that more than 30-year career, I have gained an ever deeper understanding of and appreciation for the moral and social teachings of our Church. In my various roles I have lent my voice to articulating those teachings and their applicability to the critical issues of our time. That is what I intend to do with this blog. Moreover, at a time when our political and social disagreements seem to have degenerated into constant vitriol, vilification, verbal abuse and intolerance of those who hold differing opinions, I hope that this blog can contribute, in some small way, to a restoration of respectful debate and discussion, where we can defend our beliefs forcefully without demonizing any who disagree with us. As a Catholic commentator, that is what I have always striven to do--remembering that even as we are called to stand firmly in defense of our Church, her teachings, and our right to be heard in the public square, we are also called always to be the face of Christ to the world--most especially to those with whom we disagree.

2 thoughts on “In Defense of Religious Freedom

  1. They should actually do a breakdown of various worship services across the broad spectrum of faith communities to see how the rate of positivity appears. I would suspect the Catholic Church has very low rates and that is including our high percentage of Hispanic membership which otherwise has high rates.

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    1. Good point, Father Larry, I would agree that our rates would probably be among the lowest. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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