Since the beginning of the pandemic, health experts have urged social distancing practices to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19. Nevertheless, some Americans continue to disregard health experts’ recommendations by both refusing to wear masks and social distance. One common trend across the U.S. that poses a health risk are religious ceremonies with many in attendance and few masks in sight. For example, James River Church in Springfield, Missouri continues to hold multiple Christmas celebrations with thousands of attendees. Additionally, a few thousand Orthodox Jews attended a secret wedding in early November. These events act as “superspreaders” due to the quantity of individuals present, many of whom travel from across the country.
In New York, Governor Cuomo attempted to curb the spread of COVID-19 by restricting social gatherings including limiting indoor religious ceremonies to 10-25 people. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America filed suit against the state arguing that restricting religious gatherings infringes religious freedoms provided under the First Amendment. The New York Supreme Court upheld the COVID-19 restrictions. On appeal however, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling in a 5-4 decision granting the exemption. The Justices determined that the First Amendment granted religious individuals an exemption from adhering to social gathering restrictions because it infringes the right to freely practice religion.
The plaintiffs further argued that the state’s COVID-19 restrictions targeted religious groups differently than essential businesses that are operating. Similarly, in Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court ruled generally applicable laws that unintentionally burden religious freedoms are not excusable. Furthermore, they declared only laws intended to limit free exercise of religion or violate other constitutional rights must be analyzed in connection to the state’s compelling interests and implemented in the least restrictive means. Therefore, a court may uphold restrictions on religious gatherings if the state can either prove restrictions are generally applicable or that there is a compelling interest such as the health risks posed by COVID-19.
This Supreme Court decision contrasts those prior to Justice Ginsburg’s death wherein restrictions on religious ceremonies in California and Nevada were upheld. This recent case is yet another example of the Supreme Court’s battle with balancing religious freedoms and societal stability. Consistent with the historic trend of conservative SCOTUS majorities, cases concerning one’s “freedom of religion” may inadvertently infringe upon others’ rights to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” With the Supreme Court’s ability to impact every American’s life, they play an important role in preserving the health and safety of the public. With nearly 17 million cases this week, this recent decision will undoubtedly delay the urgent attempts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in America.