Shift in balance at U.S. Supreme Court alters trajectory of COVID-related worship restriction cases

by | Jan 19, 2021

After declining last year to halt restrictions issued by Nevada’s governor limiting attendance at worship services in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Supreme Court has now asked him to file a brief replying to the same church’s latest request to the high court for relief. The order underscores a broader shift in COVID-related religious liberty jurisprudence across the country as courts apply the Supreme Court’s November decision in Agudeth Israel of America v. Cuomo, halting New York’s worship service attendance caps in high infection zones.

 For example, in a hearing before a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month (Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom), “questioning suggested [the court] might reverse its previous decision upholding the constitutionality of … California restrictions,” according to the Los Angeles Times. That case was returned to the district court by the Supreme Court following its ruling in Agudeth Israel. Although the district judge upheld the California restrictions a second time, the appeals court appears poised to change course.

Faced with [the Supreme Court’s November ruling], 9th Circuit Judge Morgan Christen, an appointee of President Obama, noted Monday that some of the restrictions in California mirror those the high court struck down. The Supreme Court overturned rules that limited indoor attendance at places of worship to a specific number, without taking into account the size of the building.

In Nevada, meanwhile, a 5-4 Supreme Court that included Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the majority previously voted to leave Nevada’s worship attendance restrictions in place rather than issue an emergency injunction. But Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley continued to press its case that the governor’s regulations violated religious liberty protections of the First Amendment, alleging – among other things – that the state is treating casinos more favorably than churches.

 The Supreme Court’s latest order directing the governor to reply to Calvary Chapel’s renewed request for review may signal a willingness to revisit the case, now that Justice Ginsburg has been replaced by Justice Amy Coney Barrett. And while the high court’s New York ruling could be construed as a narrow decision aimed only at hard attendance caps that fail to take into account the size of the house of worship, the Court – if it now decides to review the Calvary Chapel case – could establish broader parameters for balancing religious liberty interests with the state’s interest in protecting the public health.

 Stay tuned.