Paul Krugman Thinks Holding Religious Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Like ‘Dumping Neurotoxins Into Public Reservoirs’
When the Supreme Court blocked New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on religious services this week, it was the first time the justices had enforced constitutional limits on government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision predictably provoked hyperbolic reactions from critics who seem to think politicians should be free to do whatever they consider appropriate during a public health crisis.
Describing the Court’s emergency injunction in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo as “the first major decision from the Trump-packed court,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman warned that “it will kill people.” He added: “The bad logic is obvious. Suppose I adhere to a religion whose rituals include dumping neurotoxins into public reservoirs. Does the principle of religious freedom give me the right to do that?” Krugman averred that “freedom of belief” does not include “the right to hurt other people in tangible ways—which large gatherings in a pandemic definitely do.”
There are several problems with Krugman’s gloss on the case, starting with his understanding of the constitutional right at stake. The Court was applying the First Amendment’s ban on laws “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion, which includes conduct as well as belief. Krugman, of course, is right that the Free Exercise Clause is not a license for “dumping neurotoxins into public reservoirs”—or, to take a more familiar example, conducting human sacrifices. But it is hard to take seriously his suggestion that holding a religious service during the COVID-19 pandemic, regardless of the safeguards observed, is tantamount to poisoning millions of people’s drinking water.
Under Cuomo’s rules, “houses of worship” in state-designated “red” zones were not allowed to admit more than 10 people; the cap in “orange” zones was 25. Those restrictions applied regardless of a building’s capacity. A 1,000-seat church, for example, would be limited to 1 percent of its capacity in a red zone and 2.5 percent of its capacity in an orange zone.
Cuomo’s restrictions on religious gatherings were much more onerous than the rules for myriad secular activities that pose similar risks of virus transmission. That point was crucial because the Court has held that laws are presumptively unconstitutional when they discriminate against religion. At the same time, it has said the Free Exercise Clause does not require religious exemptions from neutral, generally applicable laws, which obviously would include statutes that prohibit mass poisoning or murder.
It is undisputed that both the Brooklyn diocese and Agudath Israel, which sued Cuomo on behalf of the Orthodox synagogues it represents, were following strict COVID-19 safety protocols, including face masks and physical distancing. It is also undisputed that no disease clusters have been tied to their institutions since they reopened. The plaintiffs were not asking to carry on as if COVID-19 did not exist. They were instead argu
Article from Latest – Reason.com