George Pyle: Court says it’s OK to spread death — as long as you are a religion.

“There was a time when religion ruled the world. It is known as the Dark Ages.”

It used to be the social and religious conservatives who warned us not to confuse liberty with license.

In the 1960s, for example, when ever-larger groups of often-young people were experimenting with drugs and sexual freedom, evading the draft, dressing and wearing their hair in odd ways and revolting against a century of racial separation and gender discrimination, many of their elders were complaining that such behavior wasn’t freedom but the harmful collapse of society.

And as the march of civilization started to include recognition of the humanity of LGBTQ people, those who were trying to stand athwart history were complaining that what was being sought was not equal rights, but special rights.

How the script has flipped.

Now we see a defeated president making ever-more-pathetic claims that he shouldn’t lose power because, well, he doesn’t want to. Whether he stays or goes, that president is the figurehead for members of a large segment of our society whose members have as their motivating grievance a complaint that their special place in the world is being threatened. Threatened by what they perceive to be a growing number of those people, people whose rights, even their basic humanity, can’t be recognized because to do so would diminish the special place of the white patriarchy which is, indeed, losing its grip.

As has been said elsewhere, when you have been privileged for so long, equality feels like oppression.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee is among those who have complained that the culture, the media, the government and the courts are trying to discriminate against people of religious faith when, more often than not, what is really happening is a move to take away the privileged status of certain religions and their followers.

It wasn’t long ago, for example, that courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, were stating that the public health emergency of COVID-19 justified rules that sought to limit the contagion by restricting the ability of churches to maintain their normal worship practices. They ruled, rightly, that the threat to public health is real and that it was no special burden for religious institutions to suspend normal gatherings.

But on Thanksgiving Eve, the new Republican-appointed majority of the Supreme Court — with instant Justice Amy Coney Barrett now on board — flipped the other way and blocked an order from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that churches in high-transmission areas of his state sharply limit the number of people in attendance at any one time.

Many religious leaders around the world — including LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson and Pope Francis — have followed the guidance of science in limiting the size of gatherings, encouraging people to wear masks and doing other things to protect their neighbors as themselves.

But Catholic and Jewish groups in New York went to court to claim Cuomo’s order was an infringement of their First Amendment right to religious freedom. Similar attempts had failed earlier this year as the justices rightly deferred to public health experts.

But now that Barrett was on the bench, there was a firm majority to rule the other way. In a 5-4 decision, the court said that it was unconstitutional to limit religious services, especially when other, nonreligious, businesses were allowed to remain open.

The ruling centered on the idea that churches are “essential,” or at least as essential as some operations that were allowed to stay open, such as hardware stores, bicycle repair shops and acupuncture clinics. What the ruling ignored, and the powerful dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained, is that people don’t gather in large groups in stores and clinics, standing or sitting, singing, chanting and otherwise sharing their breath, for an hour or two.

New York actually cut churches a small break, allowing small numbers of people to be inside them, while completely closing down comparable venues, such as Madison Square Garden and Broadway theaters.

The court’s ruling did not give the churches of New York equal rights. It gave them special rights. Something that conservatives used to be against.

It would be absurd, perhaps, to worry that this ruling is prologue to other decisions that would exempt religious institutions from laws such as those that ban human sacrifice, selling daughters into slavery or parents stoning their children to death for not showing proper respect.

But it was a decision that holds that you can get away with behavior that is clearly harmful to the whole community just because you claim it was for a religious purpose.

If that’s really what freedom of religion means, we don’t need any more of it.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has been to one bar mitzvah, a couple of Catholic weddings and a handful of atheist funerals. None of them during a global pandemic.

Twitter, @debatestate


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