Some politicians, including Joe Biden and many of his supporters, are continually calling for unity and healing in the wake of a probable victory in the presidential race. Unity and healing are good traits when there is a healthy culture that can support it. Simply put, that means there is respect for disagreement, honest dialogue, and commitment to the rule of law and our Constitution.
We haven’t had that for a while and there are endless examples that point to a highly toxic political environment. The 2018 Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings are just one recent example where the behavior and antics of the left spiraled out of control. It was certainly one of those notable measuring sticks where the political conduct descended even further away from normalcy. This year we’ve seen quite a bit of violence and mayhem during the recent campaign season, including physical attacks on supporters of President Donald Trump just last weekend in Washington D.C.
After saying that, I think it’s important to draw attention to a very notable speech delivered by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito for the Federalist Society on November 12. Sometimes when a speech is routinely attacked by the media it has a worthwhile message and it’s certainly true in this case. To say Alito’s speech was not well received on the political left is a massive understatement. His remarks were triggering for many despite his measured tone and contextualizing his remarks by stating from the outset in ways he is not a public policy or scientific expert. Of course, Alito called for respectful dialogue, something many of his detractors are incapable of achieving.
Alito mainly touched on the erosion of religious liberty in America today but also delved into the measures taken by the government during the coronavirus to curtail broader notions of freedom. Early on in his address Alito declared:
All sorts of things can be called an emergency or disaster of major proportions. Simply slapping on that label cannot provide the ground for abrogating our most fundamental rights. And whenever fundamental rights are restricted, the Supreme Court and other courts cannot close their eyes.
Alito noted too that “religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.” It’s worth watching or reading his speech in its entirety to see just how far we’ve collectively fallen since former president Bill Clinton signed the overwhelmingly bipartisan Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993.
There is little doubt that our culture has shifted dramatically just since the 1990s, but Alito offers up this essential point: “The question we face is whether our society will be inclusive enough to tolerate people with unpopular religious beliefs.”
Towards the end, he tied together Covid restrictions with the unfair restrictions on houses of worships, which we’ve covered before at the Civitas Institute in regards to Gov. Roy Cooper’s stringent orders. Alito pointed out the hypocrisy and crony favoritism the government has for big businesses over and against houses of worship. The state of Nevada is one example. “You will see the Free Exercise Clause of the first amendment which protects religious liberty, you will not find a craps clause or a blackjack clause or a slot machine clause,” chided Alito. Nevada’s governor granted fewer regulatory restrictions for casinos than churches in the wake of the coronavirus.
It is a remarkably sober, yet essential speech. Alito outlines how so much ground has been lost on religious liberty and he says now it’s incumbent on the high court to protect freedom of speech which is quickly falling out of favor in large segments of our society. He notes that freedom of speech may soon morph into “a second-tier right” under our Constitution.
We just had judicial elections in North Carolina and his remarks should be another reminder of what kind of judges should be supported in the state going forward. He does leave us with some good news though, echoing Thomas Jefferson who believed liberty rested with the people and not ultimately with our documents and powerful institutions. Alito ended by saying,
But in the end, there is only so much that the judiciary can do to preserve our Constitution, and the Liberty it was adopted to protect. As Learned Hand famously wrote, ‘Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women when it dies there. No constitution, no law, no court can do much to help it.’
The good news is there is now even more responsibility on the citizenry to protect our long understood rights. Let’s hope North Carolina emerges as the state that leads the way out of this wilderness towards tyranny.
Note: Justice Alito’s remarks begin at 15:40