By Nuwayla Mazrui-Helmrich
The United States Supreme Court is arguably the most powerful institution in the country and a vacancy on that bench for any Presidential administration, is a coveted opportunity to influence federal legislation for years to come.
The recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a beloved liberal icon and Supreme Court powerhouse, left the Court evenly split between conservatives and liberals, with an unoccupied seat that many feared would be filled by yet another Trump-era Republican, tipping the scales in favor of far-right Conservatism for the foreseeable future. When the Trump administration forced a pre-election nomination and subsequently confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the United States Supreme Court, the avowed pro-lifer and Christian Conservative proved an even more undesirable choice for many groups across the country including pro-choice proponents, the LGBTQ community and advocates against gun rights expansions.
On November 26th, in her first case of marked national impact, Barrett’s vote joined the Court’s conservative leadership in casting the deciding vote for the assenting majority. The Supreme Court voted 5-to-4 in favor of granting the Catholic Diocese and Orthodox Jews’ request to block Governor Andrew Cuomo’s emergency order to limit congregation attendance at houses of worship in the state of New York. The Conservative opinion essentially cited religious freedoms granted by the First Amendment, hamstringing Gov. Cuomo’s executive emergency powers during the pandemic. The dissenting Justices recognized the unprecedented impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the nation and the state of New York and found that the restrictions placed on the churches and synagogues in question were located in previously designated red zones which warranted the strict restrictions imposed by Gov. Cuomo.
This ruling marks a dangerous shift in Covid-19 rules at the height of the pandemic, which could potentially reshape the course of this health crisis. For many on the left, this is a clear sign that the freshman justice intends to do precisely what many feared; and that is to rely on her religious convictions to adjudicate laws that will no doubt have far reaching consequences in a country that prides itself on the separation of church and state.
With a solid majority of conservative jurists on the Supreme Court, Barrett may soon get the opportunity to play a decisive role in the expansion of gun rights too. Her record on the Second Amendment is well-documented; she takes an expansive view and interprets gun rights as an individual right that extends beyond the criteria of a militia, as stated in the Constitutional amendment. Homing in on the Barrett-era of the Supreme Court, several gun rights groups including the Firearms Policy Coalition and the Second Amendment Foundation have filed a flurry of lawsuits seeking to expand gun rights in the country in hopes of reaching a Supreme Court they now deem favorable to their agenda.
In contrast, groups advocating for gun control and gun safety like the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action; a national grassroots campaign that was launched in response to the Sandy Hook massacre, have expressed their deep concerns regarding Barrett’s confirmation.
Across all these issues, the core argument against Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the Court is singular: a Supreme Court Justice is a lifelong tenure, and a jurist whose interpretations of the Constitution are constantly at odds with her devoutly Catholic convictions would inevitably struggle with an inherent foundation of prejudice – as would be the case with gay rights rulings, gender identity and pro-choice legislation. It is on this point that many advocates who stand for social justice measures that conflict with religious morality prepare for legal battle.
Interestingly, on Barrett’s deciding vote in regard to Covid-19 restrictions, recent remarks from the Vatican make it clear that the Pope himself takes an opposing view.