Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of a church in northern Colorado preventing the state from enforcing attendance limitations on religious gatherings under the pretext of the Coronavirus.
High Plains Harvest Church “sued [Governor Jared] Polis and Colorado public health officials in May over the state’s orders limiting attendance at houses of worship to 50 people,” according to The Denver Post.
The 6-3 ruling orders that the Aug. 10 order of the District Court for the District of Colorado is to be “vacated,” and that “the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit with instructions to remand to the District Court for further consideration in light of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, 592 U. S. ___ (2020).”
Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the Court’s conservatives; Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissent.
In her dissent, which Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined, Kagan contends that the case was “moot” and the Court need not render a decision.
Kagan and the three more liberal justices believe that since the state of Colorado has already lifted the capacity limitations, there is “no reason” to think that the church would face the same limitations on capacity.
“I respectfully dissent because this case is moot. High Plains Harvest Church has sought to enjoin Colorado’s capacity limits on worship services. But Colorado has lifted all those limits. The State has explained that it took that action in response to this Court’s recent decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, 592 U. S. ___ (2020)”Associate Justice Elena Kagan | High Plains Harvest Church, et al., v. Jared Polis, Governor of Colorado, et al. | The Supreme Court of the United States | December 15, 2020
“Absent our issuing different guidance,” Kagan concluded, “there is no reason to think Colorado will reverse course—and so no reason to think that Harvest Church will again face capacity limits.”
The Court also ordered on Tuesday morning—with no recorded dissents—that a similar challenge to COVID-related restrictions on attendance at houses of worship imposed by New Jersey’s governor Philip Murphy be sent back to lower courts for a new look subsequent to the Court’s decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo.
In Roman Catholic Dioceses of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, the Court held that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s strict attendance caps violated the First Amendment and, thus, were unconstitutional.
The 5-4 Per Curiam decision was handed down shortly before midnight on Nov. 25. It was heralded by many conservatives—including President Donald Trump—as a profound victory.
In this ruling, Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and, recently confirmed, Amy Barrett comprised the majority.
They applied the most stringent standard of judicial review: strict scrutiny. The majority ultimately agreed with the petitioners.
“Not only is there no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID–19,” wrote the majority, “but there are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services.”
At the time of publishing, neither Polis, nor Murphy had responded to any media inquiries regarding the handing down of these decisions.
These rulings are seen as massive wins for religious institutions and a demonstrable illustration of the Court’s willingness to defend the right to religious liberty enshrined in the First Amendment.