Posted December 15th 2020 3:21 pm by Amy Howe
The Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out two lower court rulings that allowed states to enforce COVID-related restrictions on church services. The two brief orders from the judges direct the lower courts to re-examine the religious groups’ challenges to restrictions in Colorado and New Jersey – and this time the lower courts, the judges indicated, should rule the challenges in light of the Supreme Court’s Nov 25 decision , which lifted New York City’s COVID-related restrictions on attending church services.
Tuesday’s orders are further evidence of the wider ramifications of the New York ruling, which judges have now invoked three times in three weeks to tell lower courts across the country that they want to worship religious groups unreservedly during the pandemic should be more concerned.
In the Colorado case, the judges threw out an August 10 federal district court order denying a motion by High Plains Harvest Church, a small church in northern Colorado, to exclude the state from enforcing capacity limits. Judge Elena Kagan contradicted Tuesday’s order and drafted a brief statement – along with Judges Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor – in which she argued that the case was contentious because Colorado had already lifted the borders in question.
High Plains Harvest Church came to the Supreme Court on December 4 after the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit denied the church’s motion to block the borders while the church was pursuing its appeal. The Church alleged that public health orders issued by Colorado Governor Jared Polis, D and the director of the state health department, Jill Ryan, wrongly limit personal attendance at places of worship to 50 people regardless of the size of the building, while many Secular businesses can operate without attendance restrictions. The State’s actions violated the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution, the Church alleged, stating that the exceptions in the Public Health Orders were “indistinguishable from the exceptions that prompted the Court of Justice for practical reasons New York to enact restrictions last month “. In addition, the state violated its right to free expression by allowing protests against Black Lives Matter while restricting attendance at church services.
In a December 9 filing, Colorado told judges the case was contentious because the Church “already has the relief it seeks”: The state recently raised capacity limits for “any place of worship at any time in response to that of the Court of Justice on recent decisions. “But the state also defended existing public health regulations as valid, arguing that it was imposing them to curb the spread of COVID-19 and that there was no evidence that the state was motivated by an intention to discriminate against religion The state stressed that the limits of indoor services cannot be compared to “the spontaneous protests after George Floyd’s death” that took place outdoors.
The Supreme Court’s unsigned one-paragraph order overturned the federal district court’s decision denying the Church’s request to prohibit the state from enforcing the limits and sent the case back to the district court to ponder the matter rethinking the Supreme Court decision in the new case of York known as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. New York. Kagan’s dissent emphasized that as a result of this decision, the state had already lifted its limits on attending church services. “[T]At this point, there is no reason to believe that Colorado will reverse course – and therefore no reason to believe that Harvest Church will again face capacity limits, Kagan wrote. As a result, the case is “really over”.
The court granted similar relief – but this time with no established disagreement – in the New Jersey case, which contains state rules that generally limit attendance at places of worship to less than 25% capacity or 150 people. One of the plaintiffs, a Roman Catholic priest, complained that the restrictions allowed him to hold personal mass for only about 20 members of his 175-strong congregation at a time, even though the church was in North Caldwell, New Jersey. holds 100 people. As in the Colorado case, the challengers – who include a rabbi who runs a synagogue in Lakewood, New Jersey – claimed that the attendance restrictions treated religious gatherings less favorably than secular activities in violation of their First Amendment rights.
The New Jersey plaintiffs also challenged the state’s mask mandate, which generally mandates the wearing of masks indoors. Plaintiffs said the mandate treats religious groups less favorably than secular groups because the mandate includes exceptions for secular purposes – such as for food and health reasons – but only allows the temporary removal of masks in religious settings.
In a December 3 response, New Jersey admitted that the lower courts “did not take advantage of this court’s decision in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn” when they denied the challengers’ request for relief. Therefore, the state acknowledged that it would be appropriate for the Supreme Court to send the case back to the lower courts so that they can re-examine the case in the light of that ruling – exactly the same measures the Supreme Court took on Tuesday.
This post was originally published on Howe on the Court.
Amy Howe, judge reinvigorate attempts by religious groups to block COVID-related restrictions in Colorado, New Jersey.
SCOTUSblog (December 15, 2020, 3:21 p.m.), https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/12/justices-revive-religious-groups-attemptions-to-block-covid-related-restrictions-in-colorado – New Jersey/