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Supreme Court rules against Colorado’s church gathering restrictions

The Supreme Court previously ruled in favor of a group of churches in New York.

This Oct. 4, 2018, file photo shows the U.S. Supreme Court at sunset in Washington.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

The Supreme Court has once again sided with a church challenging pandemic-related restrictions on gathering, overruling Colorado’s efforts to impose capacity limits to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The ruling, issued Tuesday morning, cites an earlier decision involving houses of worship in New York that said faith groups cannot be held to different safety standards than similarly situated secular organizations.

Three of the court’s more liberal justices joined a dissenting opinion, noting that Colorado has already adjusted its gathering rules.

“The state has explained that it took ... action in response to this court’s recent decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan. “Absent our issuing different guidance, there is no reason to think Colorado will reverse course — and so no reason to think Harvest Church will again face capacity limits.”

Tuesday’s decision is the latest development in the Supreme Court’s complicated relationship with religious gathering restrictions.

Earlier this spring, justices ruled against houses of worship in Nevada and California, noting that state leaders have broad authority to promote public safety during a pandemic.

Officials don’t violate the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections if they treat churches the same as other gathering spaces, wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in a concurring opinion in the California case.

“Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, these restrictions appear consistent with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time,” he said.

Roberts’ four conservative colleagues argued that he and other justices in the majority were drawing the wrong comparisons.

Citing California’s more lenient rules for supermarkets, restaurants, malls and other retail spaces, they called for the state’s religious gathering rules to be overturned.

“California has ample options that would allow it to combat the spread of COVID-19 without discriminating against religion,” wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh in his dissenting opinion.

He and the other justices who objected to that May decision later gained the upper hand when Justice Amy Coney Barrett replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in late October.

In November, the new conservative majority joined together to block the enforcement of gathering restrictions in New York, arguing that the state has wrongly treated a variety of secular businesses more favorably than houses of worship.

“Members of this court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the majority opinion said.

Now, that November opinion has been used to strike down Colorado’s gathering rules. The justices also cited it Tuesday in a separate decision that sends a challenge to New Jersey’s religious restrictions back to the lower courts for further review.

Jeff Hunt, who directs The Centennial Institute, a public policy think tank at Colorado Christian University, applauded the court’s actions, while also noting that churches must still do their best to keep congregants safe.

“The Supreme Court made the right decision in siding with a Colorado church against capacity limits,” he said in a statement. “The right to free exercise of religion is one of the most important human rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

The Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on another pending religious liberty case involving Kentucky’s effort to temporarily ban in-person learning at all religious and public schools.