January 18, 2021

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What Does SCOTUS Decision on Religious Service Size Restrictions Mean for Worshipers?

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As COVID-19 cases continue to spike in the U.S., governors have taken unprecedented measures to minimize the surge of infections. These measures mainly include restricting gatherings in homes, schools, businesses, and places of worship.

These restrictions, of course, didn’t go unchallenged. There has been a deluge of lawsuits against the governors opposing these restrictions. The most recent one that made it to the Supreme Court was against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on the size of gatherings in houses of worship.

The Supreme Court sided with religious groups in striking down restrictions on attendance at religious services. It stated that such actions are an unconstitutional restriction of the First Amendment’s protection to the free exercise of religion.

The matter came before the Court after Cuomo restricted large gatherings in the houses of worship. Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America brought the case to the Court, arguing the restrictions violate the First Amendment because “the regulations treated the houses of worship more harshly than comparable secular facilities.”

Public Health vs. Religious Liberty

COVID-19 has brought unique challenges, forcing governors to use their emergency powers to maintain public health of the American people, including prohibiting religious gatherings. These orders have been challenged in court multiple times, and courts continue to struggle to find the right balance between individual religious rights and communal public health.

Generally, the government is within its power to restrict gatherings in a church to ensure public safety. But problems can arise when restrictions are not neutral and applicable to everyone. When that happens, the government must provide more proof that the limits are necessary and that there is no better alternative to maintaining public safety.

The Supreme Court, when addressing this issue, acknowledged the need to respect the judgment of public health experts. But the Court refused to allow the restriction to stand, stating that it is “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.”

Previous Decisions by the Court

This Court has been dealing with balancing public health and religious liberties for some time. Before Justice Amy Coney Barrett was sworn in, the Court had ruled upholding regulations restricting gatherings in houses of worship. The Court in a 5-4 majority stated pandemic-related laws restricting gatherings at churches in California and Nevada were valid.

What Does This Mean to Other States?

The immediate impact of this case was setting aside two specific restrictions that Gov. Cuomo enacted in October. Thus, the recent decision will likely not automatically invalidate other measures taken by other governors to restrict religious gatherings.

Courts will have to assess matters on a case-by-case basis to determine whether a specific regulation is unconstitutional. However, this doesn’t mean the Court’s ruling can’t be used to challenge other rules applicable to people in similar situations.

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