(UnitedVoice.com) – Across the country, churches and religious organizations have been thrust into a Constitutional crisis. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, governors and local officials have tried to keep churchgoers from gathering for worship to reduce the spread of the highly contagious virus. Yet, in one case after another, churches who practice CDC guidelines have seen their rights stripped as other businesses were allowed to remain open as “essential.”
These issues have led to multiple lawsuits, some of which have escalated to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) for its insight.
Aside from the question of what is essential or non-essential, the US Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In April, Attorney General William Barr said there were too many instances where religious institutions were singled out by governors and local authorities. Since then, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has gotten involved in several lawsuits supporting religious rights. Bar said that churches “cannot be singled out for special burdens… forced to close or limit their congregation size, or otherwise impede religious gatherings.” He also said numerous times that the Constitution did not cease to exist because of a pandemic.
Unequal Treatment in Nevada
In Nevada, Calvary Chapel Church filed a lawsuit saying the governor cannot restrict the First Amendment and force the church to limit its worship to only 50 people. Part of their argument is that bars, casinos, and restaurants can operate at 50% of their capacity. Therefore, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) is giving them a particular burden that does not apply to businesses.
On May 25, the DOJ sent a letter to Sisolak saying his initial order of only 10 people being allowed to partake in a worship service was a possible civil rights violation. It further stated that the governor’s order “impermissibly treats religious and non-religious organizations unequally.” Within hours, the governor increased the worship size from 10 to 50.
Supreme Court Disappoints Religious Activists
On Friday, July 24, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against an emergency injunction that would allow worshippers to fully gather while the lawsuit makes its way through the courts. Siding with the four liberal justices on the court, Chief Justice John Roberts was once again the deciding vote and infuriated Conservatives. However, it likely has much less to do with how he would rule on the issue and more to do with protocol.
In a May case involving the South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA), the Chief Justice wrote in a similar case that injunctions should only be granted “where the legal rights at issue are indisputably clear and, even then, sparingly and only in the most critical and exigent circumstances.”
Part of the challenge for the SCOTUS is the fast-paced, evolving situation with COVID-19. In the South Bay Pentecostal Church case, Roberts added that pandemics can change quickly. Therefore, decisions should be made by “the politically accountable officials of the States,” not the courts, which can take too much time for cases to move through.
Gov. Sisolak’s order remains in place and the case heads back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for a full hearing and decision. The lawsuit is expected to make its way back to the Supreme Court. In the dissent by the four conservative justices, Justice Neil Gorsuch indicated they would likely support the church. It could come back to the Chief Justice once again.
How would he rule?
By Don Purdum, Freelance Contributor
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