SCOTUS Delivers 6–3 Ruling That Has Conservatives Cheering

The Supreme Court has ordered lower courts in New Jersey and Colorado to rehear cases about coronavirus restrictions for religious gatherings after the high court’s recent decision not to allow New York to impose similar restrictions, which happened with conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett on the bench.

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to send a lawsuit brought by High Plains Harvest Church against Colorado Gov. Jared Polis back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dissented, writing the case is now moot because Colorado already lifted its capacity limits on religious gatherings citing the decision in New York.

High Plains Harvest Church had argued that the order violates the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion and has tighter regulations for places of worship than for essential businesses, while the state argued the restrictions on indoor gatherings are necessary to slow the spread and that there had been outbreaks in houses of worship.

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The Supreme Court wrote an unsigned order for the lawsuit regarding New Jersey, brought by Rev. Kevin Robinson and Rabbi Yisrael A. Knopfler on behalf of their respective organizations against New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and sent the ruling back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

The reverend and rabbi had argued that the capacity limit and mask mandate violates the First Amendment and is stricter for indoor worship than secular activities with the same level of risk, while the state said the restrictions are necessary for curbing transmission and that capacity and mask rules apply to both secular and non-secular organizations.
In a 5-4 decision on November 25, the Supreme Court rejected New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order limiting the size of religious gatherings because of the pandemic.

The court decided the restrictions should be “tailored” based on the risk and less restrictive rules could be enforced to minimize spread, such as limiting capacity based on the size of the house of worship.

In light of the decision, the Supreme Court has now required lower courts in California, New York, and New Jersey to reconsider if and how restrictions are applied to religious organizations.

Notably, before late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the court rejected religious groups’ challenges to restrictions in both California and Nevada in 5-4 decisions respectively with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the liberal justices.

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In a dissenting opinion for the New York decision, Sotomayor, joined by Kagan, wrote the majority decision was capricious.

“Justices of this Court play a deadly game in second-guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily,” Sotomayor wrote.