I was astonished when I read this report in The Washington Post, mostly because the judge was so obviously, incredibly wrong about both the law and the facts.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor found that the pandemic “provides the government with no license to abrogate” the freedoms that any American has, and that the service members had a right to avoid getting a vaccination on religious grounds.
“This Court does not make light of COVID-19′s impact on the military. Collectively, our armed forces have lost over 80 lives to COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic,” O’Connor wrote Monday in a 26-page order.
But the judge added that the “loss of religious liberties outweighs any forthcoming harm to the Navy” and that “even the direst circumstances cannot justify the loss of constitutional rights.”
A first-year law student would know that “religious freedom” does not give citizens the right to harm others. I used to explain to my students that your sincere belief that God wants you to sacrifice your newborn does not trump laws prohibiting you from doing so. As “originalist” Justice Scalia wrote in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, general laws prohibiting drug use take precedence over the plaintiffs’ right to participate in tribal religious observances that included smoking peyote.
Smoking peyote during a religious ceremony didn’t harm anyone. A requirement that military personnel be vaccinated protects others against a very dangerous disease. It would clearly be constitutional even if vaccine denial posed a genuine religious concern.
But it doesn’t.
The fact is that no religion (with the possible exception of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists, who don’t believe in any medical science) teaches vaccine denial. If I simply invent a “religious” precept that is not grounded in the actual doctrine of my faith, I can hardly demand that American courts respect my “religious” beliefs.
I was sufficiently incensed by this ridiculous ruling that I decided to Google the judge, who–unsurprisingly–is a high-profile member of the Federalist Society.
Here’s what the Texas Tribune had to say about him when he ruled that Obamacare was unconstitutional. (Remember that?)
In 2015, it was an Obama administration effort to extend family leave benefits to gay couples. In 2016, it was an Obama administration guideline allowing transgender children to use school bathrooms that align with their gender identity. And on Friday, it was the entirety of Obamacare that U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor struck down as unconstitutional after a Texas-led coalition of 20 states sued this year to kill it.
Over the past four years, O’Connor has handed Texas major wins in several high-profile Texas v. United States lawsuits. And it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that those cases landed in his court. The North Texas judge has emerged as something of a favorite for the Texas Attorney General’s Office, a notoriously litigious legal battalion known for challenging the federal government in cases and controversies across the country.
Since 2015, almost half of challenges to the federal government that Texas filed in district courts here landed in O’Connor’s courtroom, attorney general’s office records show. He is one of several dozen federal judges of his rank in the state.
The Obamacare decision, which was reversed by higher courts, was criticized by both conservative and liberal legal scholars as misguided and politically motivated.
The conservative legal scholar Jonathan Adler and the liberal legal scholar Abbe Gluck came together to write in The New York Times that the decision “makes a mockery of the rule of law and basic principles of democracy.
O’Connor is routinely described as a reactionary, and his vaccine decision is just the most recent evidence that he ignores legal precedents incompatible with his far-right politics. In 2015, he held a portion of the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 unconstitutional and enjoined the federal government’s definition of marriage in the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.
In 2016, as previously noted, he struck down an Obama administration rule requiring that transgender students be allowed to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. In 2018, he ruled that the Indian Child Welfare Act was unconstitutional. That 1978 law was passed in response to concerns over the high number of Indian children that were being removed from their families by public and private agencies and placed in non-Indian families. It gave tribal governments exclusive jurisdiction over children who reside on, or are domiciled on a reservation.
It goes on.
O’Connor’s rulings are frequently reversed, but the damage done goes far beyond the time and money wasted on appeals. The initial publicity garnered by his off-the-wall rulings gives an aura of legitimacy to arguments that have no legitimacy, and that are inconsistent with settled constitutional precedents.
Thanks to this decision, people will die. Unnecessarily.