Supreme Court Rules on COVID-19 Restrictions Regarding Religious Gatherings

Written by Skyler Shipp (News Writer)

On November 25th, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling that could change how COVID-19 restrictions apply throughout the country. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America sued New York over COVID-19 restrictions imposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. While these restrictions were lifted before the case reached the court, religious organizations argued that they could be put back in place and were a threat to First Amendment rights. Ultimately, the court’s majority sided with religious organizations.

The majority said that the regulations are “far more restrictive than any COVID related regulations that have previously come before the court, much tighter than those adopted by many other jurisdictions hard hit by the pandemic, and far more severe than has been shown to be required to prevent the spread of the virus” at the religious services in question (CNN). Justices from the majority had various reasons for their rulings. Justice Neil Gorsuch said that these restrictions on religious institutions were different than those on secular institutions even when these other institutions would pose an equal threat to keeping COVID-19 under control. These restrictions were stricter than most in the country, “at times capping worship services at only 10 people.”

The more liberal justices of the Court did not oppose the restrictions and were joined by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, who said that the restrictions had already been overturned by Cuomo, and that “It is a significant matter to override determinations made by public health officials concerning what is necessary for public safety in the midst of a deadly pandemic”. The other dissenting justices shared the opinion that controlling the spread of the pandemic was more important than allowing religious organizations to practice mostly as they pleased.

This case is significant because it marks a change in the leaning of the court in cases involving restrictions on religious institutions. Earlier this year the court had issued 5-4 rulings siding with states, however, after the death of Justice Ginsburg, the court is leaning even more conservative, and will probably continue to side with religious organizations in cases like this. As expected, the newest Justice, Amy Coney Barrett, ruled against the restrictions. This case shows the solidity of the conservative majority even when Roberts acts as a swing vote and this ruling is probably indicative of the Supreme Court’s foreseeable future.

On December 3rd, a similar case was brought against Governor Gavin Newsom by the Harvest Rock International Ministry, arguing that California’s religious restrictions were unconstitutional. California Attorney General Xavier Barcerra argued that California’s approach was different from that of New York because it applied to other, similar risk-level locations in the same way, such as museums, movie theaters, and restaurants. This case was sent back to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where it will be reconsidered in light of the Supreme Court’s New York ruling. We will likely see some of the restrictions on religious institutions in California lifted if the case goes as expected, which would affect restrictions locally.

While many see the lifting of some of New York’s, and possibly California’s restrictions on religious institutions as a major victory, others see it as a major setback in the effort to control the spread of the pandemic.

“In far too many places, for far too long, our first freedom has fallen on deaf ears…It is time—past time—to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques.” (Opinion- Neil Gorsuch)

The court has sent a clear message that, even in the midst of a pandemic, the First Amendment and religious freedom remain matters of great importance.

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