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Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Religious Uses in COVID Case

As many of you are all ready aware, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling the day before Thanksgiving regarding a challenge to New York Governor Cuomo's executive order restricting attendance at places of worship to address the spread of the virus that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic. Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn et al v. Governor Cuomo

The challenge had been brought by two places of worship located in areas that, at the time of the lawsuit filing, were located in "orange" zones that limited places of worship to 10 persons. The Supreme Court's decision was 5 to 4 in favor of the religious institutions that had filed the lawsuit, although the opinion itself contained multiple concurrences and dissents. The main focus of the opinion was the majority's view that the Governor's order treated religious uses less favorably than non-religious uses. For example, the Court noted that big box stores and grocery stores in the orange zones could allow hundreds of people to shop but religious institutions were limited to 10 persons in those same zones. 

The Supreme Court's opinion on COVID restrictions and their impact on religious exercise certainly seems to have shifted from where the Court was just a few months ago. As we reported previously on this blog, the Supreme Court denied Elim Romanian Church's appeal of a Seventh Circuit ruling involving a challenge to Illinois Governor Pritzker's restrictions on religious services, finding the challenge moot. Elim Romanian Church et al. v. Pritzker. The Supreme Court had also upheld California's restrictions on places of worship, finding that California had a compelling government interest in protecting the health and safety of residents and that the state had not treated places of worship less favorably than comparable assembly uses. South Bay Pentecostal Church v. Governor Newsom. In its more recent case, the Court seems to expand on what it considers "comparable" uses for purposes of determining whether religious uses are treated less favorably.


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