Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about the Supreme Court and religious threats to public health and democratic norms.
*Interview conducted December 30, 2020*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, today, we are back with our good friend Jon. We’ll be talking about some interesting, inadvertent, indirect alliances in terms of the outcomes of a court case. So, there were two situations, one of which regards the Catholics. Another was with regards to a large Jewish gathering and then the result with a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States. What happened? What was the outcome? What does this mean for secular communities?
Jonathan Engel: Basically what happened was that Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York issued executive orders that limited large gatherings in order to fight Covid, including religious gatherings, an example of the type of thing that Cuomo was looking to fight. And the reason why issues were ordered was a number of weeks ago, I think was about three weeks ago. Something like that. There was this huge wedding in Brooklyn among the Ultra-Orthodox Jews. You understand weddings like this. Thousands of people attended these weddings. Because it is the wedding. It is like the grand rabbi’s son or daughter getting married and like the entire community is invited. And they had this huge wedding with thousands of people. By the way, at those weddings, men and women are strictly separate and there’s tons of dancing. But men dance with men and women dance with women. The implications of any of that, we’re going to skip over for now.
But in any event, so Cuomo, that congregation was fined and Cuomo issued this order limiting these religious gatherings for purely secular reasons, for health reasons. So, two lawsuits were brought against Cuomo’s order by disparate groups. It was the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn versus Cuomo. And the other suit was the Agudath Israel of America, which is a big Ultra-Orthodox umbrella group vs Cuomo.
Jacobsen: Right there. It is the setup for a good Jerry Seinfeld joke.
Engel: Yes, I would think so. I would think so. But strange bedfellows, right? I guess politics makes strange bedfellows, but religion makes even stranger bedfellows. And they sued and the cases were consolidated in the Supreme Court. And last Wednesday, on the night before Thanksgiving, the Supreme Court, this is one of their first cases, argued with Amy Coney Barrett, who was just appointed. Another very, very, extremely religious person who was just appointed to the court by Trump. And in a 5 to 4 decision, they ruled that the foremost order violated the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, thereby freeing this to spread a deadly virus throughout New York City.
And that’s where we are right now. Right now, Cuomo is basically asking, talking to religious communities and saying, “Look, I can’t force you to obey social distancing and to help us keep everybody safe. But I’m asking you to. If I can put the Supreme Court that they can’t force you to, but I’m asking you to.” And I want to emphasize here that most religious mainstream religious congregations are doing what Cuomo has asked. But the Catholic Church in this one case, and again, this umbrella group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews have no intention of following what Cuomo has asked them to do. So, my life as a resident of New York City; my life is now more in danger than it was last Wednesday because of the Supreme Court ruling. And it is frightening both for the immediate public health issues and the more public health damage that could be done. But it is also frightening, in my view, from what this Supreme Court is willing to allow religion to do, as opposed to following civil law.
Jacobsen: Now, I mean the subtext there of both the Jerry Seinfeld jokes, the fact of longstanding centuries old anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church at the same time; the larger issue is the fact of anti-secular sentiment in the United States being at a high pitch. So, I want to take another lesson for the Canadian audience here today from the New York situation, also from the larger American context. So, if you look at Statistics Canada or StatsCan, which is the official federal statistics division or information gathering of Canada, in 2011, which is the recent census that we have on total religious numbers by self identification and household. Christians are at 67.3% of Canada. So, you’ll see these numbers at around 70%, 67%, 2/3rds. These sorts of rates will come around. If you look at Pew Research, also good research organization as well, Michael Lipka published an article in 2019 and he was noting, I may have this wrong doing at the top, but I had an article in which, as a side note, as a comment, not as the focus of the article about a survey that was done in 2018. So, an article for 2019 with a survey mentioned from 2018 in which they identified Canadians as only self identifying as 55% Christian.
And so within a span of seven years, 2011 to 2018, between StatsCan and Pew Research, you have a difference from 67.3% to 55%, which is a massive drop. So, if you do the math, 2021 should be the year in which Canadian Christians self-identified as such should be fewer than half of the total population of Canada, with margins of error for fluctuation based on different organizations doing the research and questions asked. But in general, those have been self-identifications.
The American context, it does show a decline, not as rapid, and still having more Christians in the country and in more positions of power. At the same time, the last 10 years have definitely shown an increased belligerence in light of that reduction in total numbers. What can Canadians take as a lesson from that? What can we expect in terms of just political involvement and belligerence on the part of those who feel as if they’re being compressed, when in fact they’re just reducing in numbers and then being put in the same place as everyone else, which is to seem in an equal status?
Engel: I’ll tell you. I hope it is not a harbinger of things to come from my Canadian friends and relatives. I think this is part of what’s going on in the United States with regard to that type of things. You see it from a political nature in terms of the Republican Party, which is clearly shrinking in terms of its percentage of Americans who identify as Republicans. And certainly they are a minority, but they’re looking to do things to lock in minority rule. And that’s, I think, one of the scary things that I would suggest that the people of Canada be alert for in that sense. And it is Christian, but it is also white Christians in the United States. They see that the demographics are not in their favor. As you said, fewer people are identifying as Christians. There are more non-white people in the United States than there were. So, the Republican Party as the vehicle for white Christendom in this country, they’re looking to, and they have been somewhat successful, which is scary, to lock in minority groups, so that, even though, we’re supposed to be a democracy, that they can still have the political power – even though they’re in the minority.
Now, how are they doing this? One way they have done this is their manipulation. I won’t get into the details of it. Probably, a lot of people know. But their manipulation of Supreme Court appointments, so that right now, Donald Trump just appointed 3 of the 9 United States Supreme Court justices, this is someone who lost the popular vote twice. How was that majority rule? How was that democracy? It is. But if you have a lock on the Supreme Court, you’ve got a lot of power to decide what the laws in this country will be.
And the same thing applies with what we call gerrymandering, where they create certain districts in such ways that they can wind up. And you see it a lot of times, not only in federal elections, but also in state elections, where, say, for example, I think this was recently the case in North Carolina where the Republicans had gerrymandered districts in such a way that it turned out that in an election for the state legislature, something like 53% of the people in the state voted for Democratic candidates. But of something like 50 positions available, Republicans won 30. So, wait a minute, you’re not getting the most votes. How are you winning? And the answer is the way they draw the districts in such a way, so that you have a lot of Democrats lose here. Let’s make that one district for tons and tons vote for Democrats. If there are more Republicans in other districts, then it will make that a separate district. Even though, it is much fewer people, so that they can win those Republican districts. So, what we’re seeing, again, is the threat, what I would advise mostly about is the threat to democracy that comes from white Christian people believing that their seat at the table, as the foremost people, the people with the most power fading away, that they will try to institute non-democratic norms in order to keep their power.
Jacobsen: Sir, thank you so much for your time today.
Engel: It is absolutely my pleasure, Scott.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal (ISSN 2369-6885). Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and the advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
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