The US Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions for religious gatherings in New Jersey and Colorado until district courts can hear the cases. In both cases, petitioners challenge restrictions imposing stricter limitations on religious gatherings as violations of the First Amendment.
The petitioners argue that the restrictions on religious institutions are harsher than those imposed on retail businesses and protesters, and this treatment requires strict scrutiny. The American Medical Association submitted an amicus brief in support of New Jersey’s public health measures, arguing that the “risk profile of religious services is similar to that of attending an indoor sporting event, going to a bar, or eating in a restaurant, all of which are subject to the same 25-percent capacity limit.”
In granting the requests for injunctive relief, the Supreme Court remanded to the lower courts for further consideration in light of the recent decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo. In that case, a narrow five-to-four majority applied a strict scrutiny analysis and determined that restricting in-person religious services based on COVID hotspot classifications “single[s] out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment,” in violation of the First Amendment. This decision has been criticized as dangerous to public health and the integrity of the court. Others argue that it is a “step in the right direction” for those seeking to challenge COVID-19 restrictions but a hollow victory for religious liberty.
While none of the justices dissented from the New Jersey decision, Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented in the Colorado case as Colorado already lifted the restrictions, making the case moot.
The decisions come as COVID-19 cases surge around the US and total deaths pass 300,000, but also as the country begins administering the first COVID-19 vaccines.
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