For more than eight months now, the Supreme Court has declined to intervene in a case in which a California church has challenged the state’s COVID-19-inspired stay-at-home orders. Finally, the court has weighed in on the case and decided somewhat in the church’s favor.
On Friday, February 5, the Supreme Court decided to allow California churches to continue holding indoor worship services. Some conservatives are hailing this as a victory, but a closer examination of the ruling reveals that, in many ways, it is anything but.
Examining the Decision
Since the court was divided in its overall ruling, the final result will be that churches will only be able to limit attendance to 25% capacity. The ban issued by the state of California on singing and chanting will also stand.
That’s bad enough as it is, but things get worse once you examine the specific comments of some of the justices. Justice Elena Kagan, in a six-page opinion that was affirmed by both Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, stated that Supreme Court justices “are not scientists” and “do not know much about public health policy.” She took this fact to imply that, therefore, justices must surrender their authority over to a shadowy cadre of unelected and unaccountable technocrats.
She asked rhetorically, “Is it that the Court does not believe the science, or does it think even the best science must give way?”
Mysticism Disguised as Science
A statement like that is sheer mysticism. Scientists, whatever their narrow expertise may be in their chosen fields, are not competent to decide on the many questions that go into the organization of a society.
They may be competent to give the public an accounting of the risks involved in something like a pandemic, but they are not competent to decide whether those risks are worth taking or not. That is for officials like judges or elected representatives—or especially for the people themselves—to decide.
As David Hume and countless philosophers since him have pointed out, questions of fact—which science is meant to answer—are completely distinct from questions of value. Questions of value are about what sorts of things we should do, what we have obligations to do, what is worth pursuing in life, what is worth living for, and so on.
Science has no authority whatsoever to answer questions like these. But, these are precisely the sorts of questions that must be answered whenever we make decisions about public policy.
Kagan’s comments are horrifying precisely because they surrender authority to answer such questions and make such decisions to people who are not equipped to do so. Scientists—whatever their value and importance to society may be—simply have no right to tell anyone how to live.