The Constitution Is Not Under Quarantine: U.S. Supreme Court Enjoins New York’s Pandemic Restrictions on Religious Gatherings



Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, No 20A87; Agudath Israel of America, et al. v. Cuomo, No. 20A90, 592 U.S.  _____. Injunctions pending appeal entered November 25, 2020.


The Supreme Court has enjoined the operation of New York’s executive orders limiting religious gatherings pending resolution of Free Exercise challenges in the Second Circuit or regulation of any petition for certiorari.  The court’s ostensibly per curiam opinion is accompanied by two separate concurrences and three separate dissents.

Executive Orders concerning public health have been issued and been modified and remain in effect or subject to further modification since the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic.  These emergency measures, in board brush, are an admixture of geographic zones of danger combined with purportedly correlative restraints on public gatherings for secular or religious purposes.  The measures may be enhanced or relaxed as the perception of prevalence or risk changes. 

Both Orthodox Jewish and Catholic organizations have challenged the imposition of restraints on attendance at religious services in New York during the Covid-19 pandemic as violative of the  Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.  The restrictions apply to the religious entities more harshly than the more liberal constraints on ‘essential’ or commercial entities, they have argued.  The measures have no bearing on reality, the petitioners submit, as there is no reason for limiting the numbers of those who may attend services to an inordinately small number where in fact churches and synagogues have the capacity to accommodate hundreds.  

There is no question of compliance and there have been no known incidents of illness relating to the operation of the synagogues and services. 

Both petitioners were denied relief in the district and appellate courts.  Decision on the merits in the Second Circuit awaits briefing and argument in December.

Immediately after petitions were filed in the United States Supreme Court, the Governor relaxed restraints that had applied.  

The Governor has argued that the pandemic restrictions favor churches and that no relief is necessary as the measures complained of are no longer in effect.

The Supreme Court has disagreed.  

The Supreme Court has concluded that strict scrutiny must be applied to the emergency measures, and that these measures cannot withstand this scrutiny, as there is no doubt of the impact on religion and no support for the capacity of the measures to serve the government’s ends.  Because the measures recently relaxed may be just as suddenly enhanced, the threats to the religious groups remain real and palpable.  As the groups have established a likelihood of success on the merits, and as the harm to first amendment interests is present and ongoing, relief pending review in the Second Circuit is appropriate. 

The Court’s per curiam opinion makes plain that the latitude accorded the political branches to act to ensure public health during crises is not unlimited:  “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” particularly where the restrictions in question strike at core constitutional concerns.  Slip Op. at pp. 5-6.  

Justice Gorsuch wrote separately to stress the vitality of the Constitution during the pandemic, stressing that “Government is not free to disregard the First amendment in times of crisis.”  Slip. Gorsuch dissent  at 2.  The particular orders in issue, subject by their nature to strict scrutiny analysis, merit the observation that public health has uncannily allied with secular convenience.  If the Constitution  has “taken a holiday” during the pandemic, this may not be permitted to become “a sabbatical.”  Gorsuch dissent at 3.  

Justice Gorsuch takes particular aim at the Supreme Court’s and the lower courts’ reliance on Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11  (1905 ) as support for plenary emergency powers during crises that must be accorded judicial deference.  Jacobson involved different rights and offered the affected a range of options, which the restrictions upon churches do not.  As the current restrictions involve core constitutional concerns, Jacobson does not control.  Even if deference is due the political branches, all emergency measures must measure up to Constitutional commands.  

Justice Kavanaugh wrote a separate concurrence, noting that New York’s restrictions are more stringent than those of other locations.  Once discriminatory measures are imposed, it is not good enough to not that they apply to others, he observed.  Once a favored class is created, the state must say why those who are less favored are excluded.  

Justice Kavanaugh takes a programmatic view of the Court’s offer of relief.  If the recently relaxed regulations are abandoned, the petitioners will be protected but if there is not change there is no impact.  The petitioners will at least be permitted some clarity during the pending appellate process.

Chief Justice Roberts has dissented, opining that there is no injunctive relief required where the challenged measures are no longer in effect.  If that were to change the petitioners could return to the court. An order instructing the governor not to do what is not being done cannot be said to meet the standards required for awarding injunctive relief.  

Justice Breyer, with Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, have joined in dissent to emphasize that there is no present need for intervention and that if intervention was needed, the parties could return and the need for relief could be promptly assessed and addressed.  The justices opine that it is not clear that the restrictions violate the Free Exercise clause and that the interests of public health  and  safety must be balanced against religion.  The courts have and must continue to recognize that assessments and interventions affecting public health crises, with their concomitant likely needs for prompt action, are the province of the political branches.  

Justice Sotomayor, with Justice Kagan, wrote a separate dissent, expressing fear that further suffering may follow from the Supreme Court’s order.  The worry is that success of the stringent measures has rendered them inapplicable, yet because of the court’s intervention, the more stringent measures may not be revived if they are needed. In Justice Sotomayor’s view, New York’s actions fall comfortably within the confines of prior analyses that hold that a law is not necessarily constitutionally infirm if it impacts religion provided there is reasonable parity with secular restrictions.  

Here, where it has been shown that New York has preferred religious gatherings over others, neither intervention nor heightened scrutiny appears apt, the justice offers.

Disregarding or second guessing the governor with respect to matters of public health is a “deadly game,” in this dissenting view.  And the mere reference to religion within the measures will not suffice to make them discriminatory.  Any statement by the governor mentioning a particular religion likewise cannot establish discrimination, where statements by the President about a religious or ethnic group were set aside by the Court in reviewing the neutrality of travel measures in their entirety.  

Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo 20A87 Order November 25, 2020

Agudath Israel et al. v. Cuomo 20A90 Order November 25, 2020

Sound at the Time: Federal Court in Massachusetts Upholds Initial Pandemic-Related Eviction Moratorium with Exception for Compelled Referrals to Landlords’ Adversaries


Baptiste, et al. v. Kennealy, et al., No. 1:20-cv-11335 (MLW) (D. Mass.) (September 25, 2020).  Conference concerning future proceedings set for October 2, 2020.  


The court has released a 100 page opinion articulating all of its reasons for concluding that at the time that the statewide prohibition on evictions and eviction proceedings was a valid use of the state’s emergency powers to protect public health.  The court cautioned that under differing tests of constitutional sufficiency the state’s action would not survive constitutional scrutiny and stressed that changed conditions could affect the court’s determination.  The court urged  the governor of Massachusetts to bear the federal and state constitutions in mind when determining, upon the expiration of the emergency measures in mid-October,  whether further prohibition of eviction activity is necessary.

The court struck down the state’s regulation requiring any landlord notifying a tenant of rent arrearages to provide written referrals to tenant advocates to aid in countering the landlord’s position, as such provisions were unconstitutional compelled speech, as held in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, No. 16-1140 (June 26, 2018).  

The court stated that if the state agreed to abandon the regulation, the court would not enter judgment against the state.  

The opinion is encyclopedic in its review of the law applicable to the use of emergency powers, particularly with reference to the Contracts Clause, the Takings Clause and the First Amendment.  This indicates that the court was concerned not only with the opinion of courts of appeals reviewing the opinion but also with respect to the lens of history, noting Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944).  

The court stated that it is possible that its denial of injunctive relief will effectively terminate the case but has ordered counsel to confer and to inform the court by October 2 of contemplated further proceedings.

2020 09 25 Baptiste et al v. Kennealy et al. No 11335 (MLW)

National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, No. 16-1140 (June 26, 2018)

Trump v. Hawaii, No. 17-965 (June 26, 2017)

Toyosaburo Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214, 65 S.Ct. 193, 89 L.Ed. 194 (1944)

Private Property, Public Problems: Landlords Challenge Massachusetts’ Eviction Moratorium in Federal and State Proceedings

Baptiste, et al. v. Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, et al., No. 1:20-cv-11335 (MLW) (D. Mass.).  Oral argument on motions for preliminary injunctive relief and for dismissal or stay held September 2 and 3. 

Matorin and Smith v. Executive Office of Housing and Development, No. 2084CV01134 (Sup. Ct.).  Memorandum and Order on Motion for Preliminary Injunction entered August 26, 2020.


Massachusetts’ Eviction Moratorium. In response to the health and economic crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 virus, last spring the Massachusetts legislature enacted a law suspending processes of eviction and foreclosure.  Regulations governing this moratorium forbade many communications between landlord and tenant except as dictated by the state, including advising tenants in obtaining financial and legal aid.  

Originally intended to expire in mid-August, the moratorium has been extended into mid-October.  It is not known whether or for how long the suspension will remain in effect, but it may, potentially, extend up to a year beyond the culmination of the COVID-19 crisis.

The Massachusetts act prohibits initiation of eviction proceedings as well as processes in aid of those proceedings occurring at or after the time the legislation and regulations became effective.  Although it is specifically stated that the moratorium does not relieve tenants of the obligation to pay rent, in practice the measures have been interpreted to permit exactly that.

Landlords Respond. Small landlords have launched state and federal challenges, asserting that the state law and regulations unconstitutionally inhibit property owners’ access to the courts, violate First Amendment rights both by proscribing and prescribing speech, constitute physical and/or regulatory takings, and violate the Contracts Clause.

No injunctive relief in state court, but ruling on motion for injunctive relief in federal court promised for September 9th. Having lost their motion to enjoin the act in state court, this week two days of argument were had in federal court, at the close of which the court invited commentary on issues arising during proceedings.  The federal court has scheduled a hearing on September 9th and has promised a ruling on injunctive relief at that time.  

Private enterprises, not public agencies. Plaintiffs assert that the state has demanded that landlords have been conscripted, without consent and without compensation, to act as state housing authorities by providing free lodging indefinitely to individuals who have no right to be on the landlords’ properties.  Plaintiffs further assert that the moratorium decimates leases and other contracts.  The Commonwealth denies that the landlords face the hardships they described as the state has enacted only temporary measures, the impact of which may be less than landlords perceive.  

Only temporary. The state has responded to plaintiffs’ claims by asserting  immunity and by arguing that the moratorium is a valid exercise of the state’s plenary emergency powers for the general welfare, and that no rights have been deprived or infringed by its temporary measures.  The Commonwealth has argued that no taking has occurred, that there is no right to injunctive relief in takings cases.  

No end in sight. Just as there is no certainty concerning the duration of the eviction moratorium, so too is there no certainty concerning resolution of this litigation, which has attracted the attention of advocacy groups seeking to serve as amici.  

Post argument submissions. Plaintiffs have submitted two post-argument memoranda of law, the first addressing the proper standard of review for deprivations of rights of petition, arguing that scholars perceive that some rights are so fundamental that only strict scrutiny will suffice. 

The Commonwealth’s response is that there can be no deprivation of rights of access to the courts where, in the Commonwealth’s view, there is no underlying case for adjudication.  A temporary interruption of enforcement mechanisms during an emergency works no harm where those remedies will become available when the emergency is over. 

Plaintiffs observe that the emergency is all but over and that the successful implementation of social distancing and other recommendations make the state’s draconian prohibitions unnecessary now if ever they were.  

Plaintiffs point to Massachusetts precedent finding significant deprivations of rights of access to the courts to have occurred over a period of weeks, and that the indefinite nature of the moratorium only enhances deprivations already suffered.  

The Commonwealth has commented on the state’s favorable view of statutory and regulatory severability which would permit the court to excise any portion of the moratorium provisions found to be unconstitutional while leaving the remainder intact.

The Center for Disease Control Weighs In. Plaintiffs point to a newly promulgated federal prohibition on evictions as proof that the state’s measures are needlessly harsh.  The federal measure permits evictions while permitting tenants to avoid eviction by submission of proof of financial difficulty and/or ability to obtain new housing, thus demonstrating that the state’s perceived link between access to the courts and public health is ill-founded.  

Ruling on Motion for a Preliminary Injunction in Superior Court 

2020 08 26 Matorin-v-Commonwealth-of-Massachusetts-Decision-on-Preliminary-Injunction

Memoranda of Law Submitted in Federal Court

2020 07 15 Memorandum of Law in Support of Preliminary Injunction

2020 07 24 Memorandum of Law in Support of Dismissal or Stay

2020 07 25 Opposition to Motion for Preliminary Injunction

2020 09 03 Supplemental Memorandum in Opposition to Preliminary Injunction

2020 09 03 Supplemental Memorandum Addressing Newly Raised Issues

2020 09 03 Supplemental Memorandum Addressing CDC Order

Centers for Disease Control Order

https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/09/04/2020-19654/temporary-halt-in-residential-evictions-to-prevent-the-further-spread-of-covid-19

The House of God v. The House of the Rising Sun: Vigorous Dissents Accompany Supreme Court’s Denial of Injunctive Relief Where Nevada Church Alleges Pandemic Measures Restrict Churches More Than Casinos

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, Governor of Nevada, No. 17A1070 (July 24, 2020).


A rural Nevada church asked the Supreme Court to enjoin state pandemic emergency measures that impose a flat numeric limit on church attendees while commercial entities such as casinos may operate at a percentage of capacity, permitting close contact for extended periods. 

The Supreme Court denied, without opinion, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley’s request.  Four justices submitted three dissenting opinions. 

Justices Alito, Thomas and Kavanaugh would grant relief, given the inexplicable and unsupported discrepancy in treatment between secular and religious gatherings as well as the irreparable harm presumed to flow from deprivation of First Amendment rights.  

The justices observed that while “…a public health emergency does not give Governors and others carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists.”  (Alito dissent, p. 3.)  Particularly as time has passed since the emergency initially arose, and new information may permit revisions, the issue of exigency has diminished while the impact of discrimination against religion has continued unabated.  

The state’s actions fare no better under speech analysis.  While the state may posit that important viewpoints are advanced during permitted public protests, this overlooks the critical truth that the constitution does not permit preferring one viewpoint over another.

Justice Gorsuch wrote a separate dissent, offering his view that the Calvary Chapel case was “simple,” in that “…there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesar’s Palace over Calvary Chapel.”  (Gorsuch dissent, p. 1.) 

Justice Kavanaugh wrote separately in dissent to emphasize that the state offered no plausible justification for its differential treatment of commercial activity and religious gatherings.  .  Justice Kavanaugh presented a primer addressing the nature and sources of religious disputes grounded in real or perceived differences in treatment of religion and other activities, and reviewing precedent addressing these cases.

Just Lawful Observes:  The concern with protracted state invocation of emergency powers permeates the dissent here, a concern that was not as apparent in May of this year, where the Court denied injunctive relief to a California church in a manner deferential to the state’s exercise of emergency powers to inhibit viral contagion during a pandemic.  South Bay United Pentacostal v. Newsom, Governor of California, No. 19a1044 (May 29, 2020). Although there were perceived differences between non-church and church activities, none were found to be inconsistent with the Free Exercise Clause. 

Calvary Chapel v. Sisolak, Governor of Nevada: Denial of Injunctive Relief and Dissenting Opinions. No. 19a1070 (July 24, 2020).

South Bay United Pentacostal v Newsom, Governor of California. No. 19a1044 (May 29, 2020).

 

 

 

“Live Free or Die” Validly Circumscribed in Time of Public Health Emergency, New Hampshire Superior Court Finds

Binford, et al. v. Sununu, Governor of the State of New Hampshire, No. 217-2020-cv-00152 (Merrimack Sup. Ct.)

The Superior Court in the State of New Hampshire has denied plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief from the governor’s emergency order prohibiting public gatherings of fifty or more persons during the time of the COVID-19 viral epidemic. 

Plaintiffs challenged the order on federal and New Hampshire Constitutional grounds, arguing that the governor lacked authority to issue an unenforceable order which would interfere with rights of assembly and religion.

The Superior Court denied the plaintiffs’ emergency motion on March 18th, and after hearing, dismissed the case on March 20.  

The court observed that the governor possesses emergency powers which may be used to protect the lives of the public during the present pandemic.  The current use of such powers is all the more apt when of short duration: the emergency order by its terms will expire on April 3.  

The court noted that the governor’s exercise of emergency powers are subject to circumscription by the legislature, and may be addressed by further judicial review should the need arise.

There is no formal written opinion at this time.  The hearing on the motion was closed to the public, but news coverage has been provided from several sources, as an audio record of the hearing has been provided to the press..


Governor’s March 16th Emergency Order

Emergency Motion for Temporary and Permanent Injunctive Relief

Opposition to Motion for Injunctive Relief

Court Upholds Governor’s Order: New Hampshire Union Leader

Court Upholds Ban on Large Gatherings: Seacoast Online