The United States Supreme Court has handed churches in Colorado and New Jersey a huge victory in a Tuesday decision to reverse a pair of lower court rulings that enforced unfair COVID-19 restrictions.
According to SCOTUS Blog, the orders concern rulings against High Plains Harvest Church in Colorado and a group of churches and synagogues in New Jersey. Both cases contested strict attendance limits placed on religious institutions that were unequally applied to secular venues. The New Jersey case also argued that the state’s mask mandate was applied more strictly to religious gatherings than secular ones.
The Supreme Court ordered the lower courts to reconsider the cases in light of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in November in favor of the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn against unfair capacity limits imposed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
“Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the Court ruled against Cuomo last month. “The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty,” and “cannot be viewed as neutral because they single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”
Although liberal Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer signed a written dissent on the Colorado case, the precedent-setting New York ruling landed on the side of religious liberty thanks to the addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the high court.
In a dissent in the New York case, Justice Sotomayor warned that the court’s ruling “will only exacerbate the nation’s suffering” as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
“Justices of this court play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily,” Sotomayor declared.
In a statement to the Federalist Society before the New York ruling, Justice Samuel Alito said that similar restrictions on churches in Nevada and California had “blatantly discriminated against houses of worship,” warning that “religious liberty is in danger of becoming a second-class right.”
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