Supreme Court says keeping people safe from COVID threatens religious liberty


Conservatives say that Amy Coney Barrett's appointment to the court has made the recent rulings blocking COVID safety restrictions possible.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious institutions in New Jersey and Colorado that had argued that their states' pandemic-related regulations violated their religious freedom.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, touted by the right as a champion of religious liberty, has been a critical factor in swaying recent decisions on this subject.

In the Colorado case, a small church opposed limits the state's health department had placed on the number of people allowed in a building during services. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the church in a 6-3 vote, with only the Court's three liberal justices, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, dissenting, on the grounds that the ruling was unnecessary, since Colorado had already removed the restrictions.

"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 the dissent.

In the New Jersey case, a rabbi and a minister claimed that the state's mask mandate and a limit on service attendance to 25% of a building's capacity violated their religious liberty.

The justices vacated lower court rulings that had favored the state in both cases. The court issued injunctions allowing the houses of worship to operate at a higher capacity and with exceptions to mask-wearing comparable to those issued to restaurants and other nonretail businesses.

There were no signed dissents in the New Jersey case.

According to NBC, New Jersey had informed the court that the case was no longer relevant, since it had since lifted many of the restrictions it had issued to prevent viral spread earlier in the pandemic.

Health experts continue to urge measures to control the spread of the coronavirus: The World Health Organization's guidelines for religious services, issued in April, note that places of worship should defer to the recommendations of national and local authorities and suggest that virtual gatherings are safer, while in May, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered specific guidelines and noting that congregations should "take steps to limit the size of gatherings in accordance with the guidance and directives of state and local authorities."

In November, after Barrett's confirmation, the Supreme Court blocked New York state's enforcement of COVID restrictions on gatherings in religious institutions. Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court's liberal justices in dissent, and Barrett cast the deciding vote.

On Dec. 3, the court backed a California religious ministry that argued that Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom had imposed "draconian and unconscionable prohibitions" on the community.

The rulings in favor of religious institutions that challenge state regulations are a departure from court decisions prior to Barrett's appointment.

In two rulings over the summer, the high court sided with Nevada and California against churches protesting COVID restrictions in 5-4 votes, with Roberts siding with the four liberal justices.

Conservatives say that Barrett's appointment has made the recent rulings blocking COVID safety restrictions possible.

Conservative columnist Henry Olsen wrote of the New York case in a Nov. 27 op-ed published by the Washington Post, "This reversal was possible only because of Barrett. Without the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there were only three liberals to join the Chief Justice in support of the governor's order. Barrett joined the four conservatives who had dissented in this summer's cases to form the majority in this one."

The Family Research Council, a far-right activist group, attributed recent rulings to Barrett's influence as well, tweeting, "New Justice Amy Coney Barrett cast the tie-breaking vote solidifying the working mom’s standing as rock-solid defender of religious freedom."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.