Supreme Court Punts On Pandemic Religious Restrictions

Supreme Court Punts On Pandemic Religious Restrictions May 31, 2020


Supremes At Work

Although it looks like Chief Justice Roberts muddied the waters as usual in preventing the court from decisively ruling on the constitutionality of religious restrictions in the face of the pandemic, a second look shows a more pragmatic reason. The court’s upholding the right of the state to set some restrictions on religious gatherings seems to rest on two points. First, religious gatherings are not like businesses because gatherings are more socially intensive and lengthy. They are more akin to theater gatherings, sports activities, etc. Second, as in the case of California and Illinois, the state showed flexibility in modifying and mitigating its original severe restrictions on religious gatherings. Roberts seemed to indicate that this puts the decision of religious gatherings during the pandemic into the political and health and safety sphere. In other words, the court majority saw this as a more fluid issue depending on the course of the pandemic. This is just the court’s first immersion into this issue but hardly its last.

Not Always About Liberal vs. Conservative

Personally, I side with the minority because I think the state should leave its hands off the church. But the states have shown some reasonableness in mitigating their originally severe restrictions. And Justice Roberts always prefers to soothe and compromise rather than precipitate an either/or confrontation. He and the majority appear to think that these problems should be resolved in conversation with all parties involved for the good of the community. I find this a little optimistic and naive. I relish the fight, but I understand the wish in the pandemic crisis to reach an accommodation. Right now, the states have moved towards more accommodation with the churches. That’s a good sign. Let’s hope this continues.

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