High Plains Harvest Church v. Polis, 592 U.S. ___ , December 15, 2020; Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, No. 20-16169 (9th Cir.), December 15, 2020.
This week both the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the recent New York determination that pandemic restrictions on public gatherings cannot be more restrictive for religious gatherings than for others.
In the Calvary Chapel case, the Ninth Circuit has concluded that petitioners are likely to succeed on the merits in their challenge to Nevada’s pandemic-related public gathering restrictions because the disparate treatment accorded to secular and religious groups cannot survive strict scrutiny analysis, Permitting secular activities at 50% of capacity while limiting religious gatherings to 50 persons without reference to capacity unduly burdens religion. Pending review in the federal trial court, the Ninth Circuit has granted injunctive relief ordering that no more harsh restriction than 25% of fire code capacity may be attached to in-person religious gatherings.
The Supreme Court has reiterated that the decision and analysis applied to restrictions on religious services announced in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, No. 20A87, 592 U.S. _____, November 25, 2020, and has directed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to address the challenge to Colorado’s pandemic-related restrictions accordingly.
Three justices dissented because they believe that the case is moot, as Colorado removed the challenged restrictions following the Court’s November determination concerning New York’s emergency measures.
JustLawful Observation: Some may be consoled that Christmas and Chanukah gatherings may have been saved by the Supreme Court’s intervention in New York, which will be applied elsewhere, while others may question why it required the intervention of the nation’s highest court to do what custom and practice, even in a public emergency, once might have dictated. The more comforting lesson may be that the Supreme Court has rejected the states’ arguments that the Court’s early 20th century views of states’ expansive emergency powers permits unequal treatment of religious and secular activities. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905) was and remains good law, but Jacobson did not decide the questions presented in the present cases, and the Court is not willing to expand states’ powers beyond the limits of the First Amendment.