Opening the Ears of the Deaf

A view of the U.S. Supreme Court building at sunset in Washington. (Reuters/Erin Scott/File Photo)

It is in times of trouble and stress when the souls of men are tested and their real self is discovered, and it is at a time of national emergency when the strength and moral values of a democracy are revealed.

Last week’s ruling by the United Supreme Court was a major victory for the observant Jewish community in New York, and its broader implications are a source of deep relief for all those who cherish religious freedoms in America. On a deeper note, it underscores why this country has long been referred to as a “malchus shel chessed,” and how much gratitude we owe our Creator for putting such values into the minds of America’s Founding Fathers, as well as a majority of the current high court members.

Not that long ago, even those who may have been personally irreligious, exhibited a marked respect for religion. In recent decades, that respect had all but disappeared and, in many quarters, has been replaced with open hostility. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order limiting houses of worship in red zones to a maximum of 10 people, while placing no such limitation on various secular activities, was only the latest salvo in a series of attacks on religious rights throughout the country and beyond.

As Justice Neil Gorsuch stated in his masterful concurring opinion, “In far too many places, for far too long, our first freedom has fallen on deaf ears.”

It is telling that three of the five justices who agreed to “the extraordinary remedy of injunction” — enjoining the Governor from enforcing the restrictions even before the appeals court, let alone the Supreme Court had a chance to hold a hearing — were named to the court by President Trump. Indeed, the President’s appointment of these judges, along with more than 200 other federal judges over his four years in office, will likely comprise one of his most lasting and influential legacies, and one that our community in particular should be thankful for.

“Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical,” is how Justice Gorsuch put it in his opinion.

While some other parts of his sharply worded opinion received more publicity, Gorsuch’s simple rendering of the facts were particularly compelling:

“People may gather inside for extended periods in bus stations and airports, in laundromats and banks, in hardware stores and liquor shops. No apparent reason exists why people may not gather, subject to identical restrictions, in churches or synagogues. … The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as ‘essential’ as what happens in secular spaces. Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment, laundry and liquor, travel and tools are all ‘essential,’ while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.”

Agudath Israel of America, which persevered with this lawsuit despite the lower court defeats, skepticism and even criticism from some within the community, deserves much credit for waging this legal battle. It is noteworthy that they were not alone. The Supreme Court ruling addressed both the lawsuit by Agudah as well as a lawsuit filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, and among those who filed amicus briefs in support of their stance was the Muslim Public Affairs Council joined by the Religious Freedom Institute’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team.

While we have clear-cut and non-negotiable theological differences with Catholics and Muslims, this legal battle underscores the importance of being able to build bridges and establish positive working relationships with other groups as we battle common threats.

While there is much in this ruling to be grateful for, the battle for our religious liberties is far from over, and we must continue to be on heightened alert and, most vitally, continue to daven for the ability to daven b’rov am and to serve Hashem freely, even here in this malchus shel chessed.