COVID updates: NY congregation limits halted, MI’s school mask requirements remain in place, new COVID funding
Before we mercifully close the book on 2020, here are some developments in religious liberty stories related to COVID-19 that took place since my year-in-review post.
- As expected, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the trial court in Agudath Israel of America v. Cuomo to issue an injunction halting New York’s 10 and 25-person occupancy limits on houses of worship in targeted zones with high infection rates. The decision follows last month’s 5-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which barred enforcement of the limits pending appeal after determining that the governor’s distinction between essential and non-essential businesses failed to properly protect the religious liberty of houses of worship in those zones. The 2nd Circuit opinion follows suit, stating, “[t]he only explanation for treating religious spaces differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as ‘essential’ as what happens in secular spaces.”
- Via Religion Clause, a federal district court in Michigan declined to halt mask requirements for children in religious schools in a lawsuit challenging the mandate on religious liberty grounds. The court found that the order requiring mask use applies to all schools, religious and secular, and thus contains no “hint of hostility” toward religion.
- Limits on worship service attendance in California were upheld in two separate cases. There, courts were tasked with balancing the Supreme Court’s seemingly conflicting rulings, which refused to halt restrictions in some cases (pre-Justice Amy Coney Barrett) but more recently issued an injunction barring enforcement of attendance caps in New York. Both courts (in the cases of South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Harvest Rock Church) ruled that California’s rule satisfies the requirement of being neutral with respect to religion.
- A new round of COVID-related funding was enacted after President Donald Trump signed the bill into law on December 27. Like the previous stimulus, this legislation includes religious organizations and houses of worship as eligible for the government’s forgivable loan program. The funding raises again the difficult questions of principle faced by houses of worship regarding whether to accept taxpayer funding to subsidize ministerial salaries during economic crisis. An episode of BJC’s Respecting Religion podcast earlier this year included a thoughtful discussion of these issues.
- President Trump signed an Executive Order allowing states to provide school vouchers – including for religious schools – for students unable to attend in-person learning due to COVID restrictions. The White House reportedly argued for including the provision in COVID funding legislation; the Executive Order was issued after its removal from the enacted funding measure.