Justice Alito warns of ‘previously unimaginable’ restrictions on freedom, rampant religious bigotry
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito stated on Thursday that the coronavirus has caused “previously unimaginable” restrictions on liberty and whatever people believe about the coronavirus restrictions, the U.S. can’t allow the restrictions to stand after the pandemic has passed. He made his remarks during a video link for the Federalist Society’s annual meeting. The conservative originalist justice said he was not trying to downplay the crisis or criticize officials for responding to it.
“We have never before seen restrictions as severe, extensive, and prolonged as those experienced for most of 2020,” Alito said. “The COVID crisis has served as sort of a constitutional stress test.”
Alito’s comments come as the U.S. is seeing a new surge in coronavirus cases and experts are reportedly warning that cases will rise in the colder months as people are now spending more time indoors. New spikes in cases across the country have forced states to reimpose stricter lockdowns on businesses and quarantine requirements on travelers. In Chicago, Mayor Lightfoot has just mandated new policies and has gone so far as telling residents to “cancel traditional Thanksgiving celebrations.”
The conservative justice made a point of highlighting the impact of the restrictions on religious events, such as Easter Sunday and Yom Kippur.
“Tolerance for opposing views is now in short supply,” Alito added, then referenced the current state of discourse in the nation’s law schools and the “broader academic community.”
Many recent law school graduates claim they face “harassment” and “retaliation” for any views that depart “from law school orthodoxy,” Alito said.
“It pains me to say this,” he went on, “but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.”
“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’s no evidence that anybody has been harmed.”
He went on to emphasize that social norms have created a list of things that students, professors, and employees can no longer say.
“You can’t say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman,” he said. “Until very recently that’s what a vast majority of Americans thought. Now it’s considered bigotry.”
Alito cited the Supreme Court cases of the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Roman Catholic nuns who were exempted from a requirement to provide birth control coverage to employees, and a Colorado baker who was allowed to refuse service to a gay couple for their wedding.
“No employees with the Little Sisters of the Poor asked for birth control coverage and the gay couple was given a free cake by another shop and had celebrity chefs jump to their defense,” he said.
“The question we face is whether our society will be inclusive enough to tolerate people with unpopular religious beliefs,” he added, saying Christians deserve the same protections as those of religious minority groups in cases over which he has presided throughout the years.
Then Alito turned to Nevada and contrasted the difference in the way casinos have been treated there versus churches:
“Nevada was unable to provide any justification for treating casinos more favorably than other houses of worship,” he said, referring to a recent Supreme Court case. “The court still deferred to the governor who favored the state’s biggest industry,” Alito said.
“Religious liberty is in danger of becoming a second-class right,” he warned, while also expressing concern over free speech and the Second Amendment.
He said there was “hostility” toward “unfashionable views” before the pandemic but said that free speech on campuses and at some corporations is now in danger.
“Judges dedicated to the rule of law have a clear duty” he added, saying they can’t “compromise principle or rationalize any departure from what they are obligated to do.”
At the conclusion of his remarks, Alito mentioned the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s belief in originalism, the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution based on its “public meaning at the time of its adoption.”
“The Covid crisis has highlighted constitutional fault lines,” he said.
Alito ended off by saying that standing up for the Constitution and freedom is work that lies ahead for all Americans.