Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

SCOTUS Ruling on COVID Worship Restrictions

 A quick note on yesterday's Supreme Court ruling on COVID restrictions on religious worship, as there's a lot of hyperbole flying around.

The court granted a stay to enforcement of Cuomo's executive orders which limited religious worship in "red" zones to 10 people or less and in "orange" zones to 25 people or less.  In both cases, those limits did not vary based on the capacity of the building, so a cathedral with a capacity of 2,000 in a red zone would be limited to 10 people.

The contention of the cases (brought by the Catholic diocese of Brooklyn and by several Jewish congregations) was that houses of worship were singled out by the execute order in a way that other forms of business were not.  Additionally, the case from the Jewish congregations held that Governor Cuomo had made remarks suggesting he would single out Jewish congregations for enforcement and had gerrymandered the borders of declared "red" zones specifically to include Jewish congregations.

The court found:  "Both the Diocese and Agudath Israel maintain that the regulations treat houses of worship much more harshly than comparable secular facilities. And they tell us without contradiction that they have complied with all public health guidance, have implemented additional precautionary measures, and have operated at 25% or 33% capacity for months without a single outbreak....The applicants have made a strong showing that the challenged restrictions violate “the minimum requirement of neutrality” to religion."

This does not mean that there can be no restrictions on houses of worship due to Covid, nor does it throw out such restrictions all over the country.  It does not mean that regulations requiring social distancing, masks, etc. to avoid spread do not apply to houses of worship.  It grants relief to the New York litigants while they pursue their case and it establishes the principle that houses of worship must not be subject to harsher capacity limits than "essential" businesses.

A key point of difference between the five justice majority and the four justice dissent was whether houses of worship should be compared with "essential" businesses or whether houses of worship were being treated fairly so long as they were not being treated worse than "similar" establishments such as theaters or concerts.  

The majority held that the executive order failed to meet the standard of strict scrutiny because it singled out houses of worship, because it was too broad in not taking into account building capacity, and because the state did not show any evidence that houses of worship which observed social distancing and reduced capacity limitations similar to "essential" businesses were in fact spreaders of the virus.  

You can read the full opinion here.

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