Court Battles

Justices side with religious challenges to health limits in Colorado, New Jersey

The Supreme Court on Tuesday sided with religious groups in Colorado and New Jersey that sought carve-outs from their state’s COVID-19 limits, the latest in a series of recent orders favoring religious challenges to health restrictions.

The court ruled 6-3 in favor of a Colorado church that sought an exemption from state health orders. The ruling broke along familiar ideological lines, with the court’s six more conservative justices backing the church’s bid over a dissent by the three liberals. 

Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, argued in a dissent that the case should be considered moot because Colorado has already lifted its attendance restrictions at places of worship.

“Absent our issuing different guidance, there is no reason to think Colorado will reverse course — and so no reason to think Harvest Church will again face capacity limits,” Kagan wrote.

In a second case, the court sided with a New Jersey reverend and rabbi who sued over health orders put in place by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and state officials that imposed capacity limits at places of worship. There were no noted dissents from that ruling.

In both cases, the justices ordered the lower courts to decide the disputes in line with a 5-4 ruling they issued on Thanksgiving eve in a New York lawsuit. That case saw the court bar authorities from enforcing attendance restrictions at churches and synagogues that New York had put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The legal rationale behind the recent rulings is that limits on gatherings at houses of worship cannot be more restrictive than those placed on businesses that governments have deemed essential. Critics say the recent rulings favoring religious carve-outs point to an alarming trend of the conservative justices substituting their own judgment for that of public health experts.

Republican leaders had touted the New York ruling, which left conservatives hopeful that pandemic restrictions would take a back seat in religious liberty cases before the court.

“The United States Constitution matters, even during a pandemic,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said about a week after the Nov. 25 ruling. “While Democrat politicians seek to impose draconian restrictions against their citizens, this past week the Supreme Court of the United States had their say on New York state’s capacity restrictions.”

The Trump administration has sought to safeguard religious liberty protections since early into the coronavirus pandemic.

In May, the Attorney General William Barr called on U.S. prosecutors to monitor public health orders for potential infractions on civil liberties and encouraged the Justice Department to pay special attention to religious rights.

The U.S. has suffered more than 300,000 deaths from the coronavirus and more than 16.5 million cases nationwide.

—Updated at 12:21 p.m.

Tags Colorado Coronavirus COVID-19 Elena Kagan lockdowns New York Sonia Sotomayor Stephen Breyer William Barr
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