Coronavirus updates: NM court upholds worship service limits, CA Gov tightens restrictions, U.S. Navy reverses policy

by | Jul 17, 2020

While coronavirus infections expand across the country, lawsuits challenging public health restrictions on in-person worship services continue to wind through courts. As I mentioned in an earlier post, even though the U.S. Supreme Court in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom recently upheld an order limiting in-person religious gatherings in California, some state and local public health orders continue to be litigated.

Here is a brief rundown of the most recent developments:

A federal court in New Mexico sided with the state and declined to issue an injunction that would halt enforcement of restrictions limiting indoor religious service gatherings to 25% capacity. Because the restrictions were similar to those capping secular gatherings, the court found them to be neutral with respect to religion, and thus not contrary to the demands of the Free Exercise Clause. “[T]hat a law mentions religion,” the ruling states, “does not necessarily mean that the law is facially nonneutral.” And without a First Amendment violation, the court concluded, “the public’s interest in limiting the COVID-19 outbreak in the State…outweighs the right to gather.”

The judge also relied on Chief Justice John Roberts’ admonition in South Bay that actions designed to protect the health and safety of the public “should not be subject to second-guessing by an unelected federal judiciary, which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health…”

In other coronavirus news, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has tightened restrictions pertaining to worship services in 30 watch list counties. The governor ordered the closure of indoor activities in businesses ranging from nail salons to houses of worship in light of the recent surge in infections in the state.  Earlier this month, California’s Department of Health issued new guidelines prohibiting “indoor singing and chanting activities” in places of worship.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy loosened restrictions that previously prohibited sailors from attending off-base religious services indoors. The rule had been challenged on religious freedom grounds by the First Liberty Institute, according to a report. The new policy permits such attendance provided sailors wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines.

State and local officials continue to wrestle with the coronavirus surge. Many are contemplating or implementing a return to tighter restrictions, but now there is a host of court decisions to provide a framework for addressing the religious liberty concerns of houses of worship. Generally, courts have affirmed the right of officials to limit indoor worship to protect public health and safety to the same extent and under the same regulations that similar secular activities are restricted. Arguments remain, however, concerning which secular activities are similar to worship. At the same time, officials are responding to rapidly changing conditions. More disputes about the right balance that protects both First Amendment freedoms and public health seem sure to emerge.

For more on this issue, see BJC’s resource page: Faith Freedom in a Pandemic.