Deferring to Local Authorities in a Public Health Crisis

At the First Things site today, I have an essay on the current round of church closures cases. To understand these cases, one has to cut through doctrinal details and focus on the factor that most drives the judges’ decisions: the need to defer to public health authorities during a crisis. That’s usually sensible. Judges are not epidemiologists, and they are not accountable if they get things wrong. But local authorities have begun acting in ways that betray that trust:

In the last couple of weeks, local authorities have squandered much of their credibility. For months, public health authorities have told Americans that gatherings of more than a few people, even outdoors and with social distancing, should not take place because of the grave risk of contagion. Families could not even have funerals for loved ones. Now, however, many of those same public health authorities say (while others remain silent) that mass protests can and should go forward, given the issues involved. Combatting racism and police brutality is profoundly important. But that’s a separate question from whether the gatherings pose a public health risk. As Ross Douthat wrote, the virus doesn’t care why someone is protesting. 

Moreover, in making these arguments, some local officials have expressly disparaged religion. Here in New York, Mayor de Blasio used dismissive terms to explain why the city has permitted protests but forbidden Hasidic funerals: Religion, the mayor said, was simply not as important. The mayor is entitled to his opinion; probably most New Yorkers agree with him. But his statements—and those of other elected officials—should make courts skeptical about deferring to the judgment of local authorities.

You can read the essay here.

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