U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito sparked controversy with a speech, dubbed by critics as overtly political, in which he said the COVID-19 pandemic had led to "previously unimaginable" curbs on individual liberty, singling out restrictions on religious events.
The justice, who is seen as a conservative, told a meeting of the Federalist Society late on Thursday he was not underplaying the severity of the crisis or criticizing any officials for their response.
But he added: "We have never before seen restrictions as severe, extensive and prolonged as those experienced for most of 2020."
Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren blasted Alito and plugged anti-corruption legislation on Twitter, saying, "Supreme Court Justices aren't supposed to be political hacks. This right-wing speech is nakedly partisan. My bill to #EndCorruptionNow restores some integrity to our Court by forcing Justices to follow the ethics rules other federal judges follow."
Washington University Associate Law Professor Dan Epps added, "Alito's speech is actually making the best argument for Court reform. There's just no good justification for a system that gives an angry partisan like this a veto on legislation."
"The COVID crisis has served as sort of a constitutional stress test," Alito argued during his address over a video link for the conservative organization's annual conference.
Alito, who was appointed by Republican President George W. Bush in 2006, referred to restrictions on gatherings that had affected religious events.
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"Think of worship services! Churches closed on Easter Sunday, synagogues closed for Passover in Yom Kippur", he said.
"It pains me to say this," Alito added, "but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right."
The justice said freedom of speech was also under threat.
"Although that freedom is falling out of favor in some circles, we need to do whatever we can to prevent it from becoming a second-tier constitutional right," he said.
Alito's remarks on free speech echoed his words from 2016 at the same event when he referred to college campus culture that conservatives say stifles free speech to avoid offending political sensibilities on matters such as gender, race and religion.
Alito claimed that those who oppose same-sex marriage are called "bigots," which infringes on their freedom speech. Salon's Mark Joseph Stern commented on Alito's mention of social issues in his speech, saying, "That was easily the most political speech I’ve ever seen delivered by a Supreme Court justice. Wow. Same-sex marriage, guns, abortion, contraception, persecution of the Federalist Society ... he really squeezed it all in there. Yikes."
Social norms had created a list of things that was now unacceptable for students, professors and employees to say, he added on Thursday.
"You can't say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman", he added. "Until very recently that's what a vast majority of Americans thought. Now its considered bigotry."