Law & the Courts

Justice Alito: Pandemic Has ‘Resulted in Previously Unimaginable Restrictions on Individual Liberty’

Associate Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito arrives for the swearing in ceremony of Judge Neil Gorsuch as an Associate Supreme Court Justice in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., April 10, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Thursday said the coronavirus pandemic has “resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty” and warned that religious liberty is “in danger of becoming a second class right.”

Alito’s comments came during his virtual keynote speech to a conference of the conservative Federalist Society, in which the 70-year-old justice warned that the U.S. can’t allow the restrictions on personal liberty to continue after the pandemic has ended, noting that houses of worship have been treated particularly unfairly. 

“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 in which the court rejected a request by a church to block state restrictions that subjected houses of worship to a 50-person limit, while allowing casinos to operate at 50 percent of their fire-code capacities.

“Religious liberty is in danger of becoming a second-class right,” he said, expressing concern about free speech and the Second Amendment as well. 

Alito, a nominee of former President George W. Bush who was confirmed by the Senate in 2006, said that while there was “hostility” toward “unfashionable views” before the pandemic, free speech is now particularly endangered on campuses and at some corporations.

“You can’t say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman,” Alito said. “Until very recently that’s what the vast majority of Americans thought. Now it’s considered bigotry.”

“Tolerance for opposing views is now in short supply,” Alito said, particularly in law schools and the “broader academic community” 

He said a number of recent law school graduates have claimed they face “harassment” and “retaliation” for any views that go against “law school orthodoxy.”

“In certain quarters religious liberty has fast become a disfavored right,” he said. “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 spoke about 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. Their case came before the Supreme Court though none of the employees had asked for birth control coverage. He also cited the case of a Colorado baker who was allowed to refuse service to a gay couple for their wedding. The couple in question was given a free cake by another shop and was defended by celebrity chefs.

“The question we face is whether our society will be inclusive enough to tolerate people with unpopular religious beliefs,” he said, adding that Christians deserve the same protections as any other religious minority groups.

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