Some COVID-related worship restrictions upheld, others halted as disputes continue to move through court system

by | Oct 23, 2020

 Courts across the country continue to hear cases at the intersection of public health restrictions and religious gatherings.

A federal court in the District of Columbia has sided with Capitol Hill Baptist Church, issuing an injunction to halt enforcement against the church of an outdoor gathering restriction designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The court held that the limit of 100 congregants in an outdoor worship service substantially burdened the church’s religious exercise, and that the District of Columbia had failed to establish a compelling interest in the regulation.

The court found that D.C.’s argument (uniform enforcement of the gathering cap is necessary) is undermined by the fact that mass gatherings in the form of protests were seemingly supported by Mayor Muriel Bowser. “The Mayor’s apparent encouragement of these protests,” the court said in its order, “implies that the District favors some gatherings (protests) over others (religious services).”

The church promised to follow sanitation, mask-wearing, and social distancing guidelines.

Other cases continue to move forward. Here are a few:

  • In Colorado, a district court reached a conclusion similar to the Capitol Hill case, halting enforcement of restrictions on indoor worship services in light of other secular gatherings that are allowed with social distance and mask-wearing requirements. “With each exception Colorado makes for secular institutions,” the court writes, “the failure to make the same exemption for houses of worship becomes increasingly problematic.”
  • In New York, however, new restrictions targeting by ZIP Code were upheld. The law does not target religion, the court emphasized; it targets areas in which infection rates have spiked regardless of the institutions located there. 
  • In California, the church that previously took its case unsuccessfully to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied an injunction by the district court after the church argued that the COVID-19 emergency had ended. Citing Chief Justice John Roberts’ concurrence from earlier this year, the court declined to second-guess the public health determinations of state officials. 
  • Meanwhile, the Romanian Pentecostal Church has petitioned the Supreme Court to review its case after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state after finding that the 10-person limitation on in-person gatherings does not discriminate against religion. (Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who is expected to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court pending a vote in the full U.S. Senate, sits on the 7th Circuit but did not participate in the Romanian Pentecostal Church panel.)

Howard Friedman over at Religion Clause has a helpful post outlining the new cases that have been filed recently, including cases brought by religious schools challenging restrictions on in-person learning.