Supreme Court Rules Against Size Restrictions for Church Gatherings

Houses of worship in New York, Colorado, and New Jersey received relief from what they say was a targeted executive order imposing harsh and unequal restrictions on in-person gatherings during the height of the pandemic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most states placed limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings. Houses of worship in New York felt they had been unfairly targeted by the restrictions. The governor of New York had limited indoor occupancy limits in some areas of the state to as few as 10 people while other businesses were permitted to remain open without these restrictions. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, two synagogues, and a Jewish organization came together to sue the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor over attendance restrictions at religious services. New York had already eased those restrictions before the ruling. 

The unsigned opinion from the justices said that “even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

The Supreme Court also ruled in favor of houses of worship in similar cases in Colorado and New Jersey. In the Colorado case, the plaintiff, High Plains Harvest Church, challenged the governor’s order capping worship services at 50 people. The Supreme Court agreed with Harvest Church and asked the lower courts to review the exemption request for religious organizations. Like New York, the order was rolled back prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
The New Jersey case was similar to the one brought in New York. A church and a synagogue asked for relief from an order limiting in-person worship because it was not being applied equitably to secular activities.  

Rulings Are State Specific

The Court made clear in the rulings for New York, Colorado, and New Jersey that governments should treat churches the same as comparable secular businesses during the pandemic. State and local governments have the right to impose attendance limits as long as churches are not subject to harsher treatment.

The ruling only applies to these specific states and should not be construed as a universal mandate across all states. Previous similar challenges to government orders in California and Nevada had been rejected by the Court. However, it is likely that these more recent decisions in favor of places of worship will be relied upon to challenge these types of executive orders in other states where ministries are in similar situations.

Safe Gathering Reminders

Ministries are reminded to continue following recommendations from the CDC and state and local officials on masks, social distancing, and hygiene and sanitation to help keep their staff and attendees safe and to slow the spread of COVID-19. Frequently check in on statistics for your community and state to stay informed on COVID+ levels and hospitalization rates. State and local officials may still impose restrictions on gathering to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Violating orders issued at the state or local level may expose your ministry to greater legal risk. 

Additional Resources

From The Washington Post: Supreme Court relieves religious organizations from some covid-related restrictions

From NBC News: Supreme Court sides with houses of worship in Colorado, New Jersey, on coronavirus restrictions

From Brotherhood Mutual: COVID-19 Resources for Ministries  

Posted December 22, 2020

The information provided in this article is intended to be helpful, but it does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for the advice from a licensed attorney in your area. We strongly encourage you to regularly consult with a local attorney as part of your risk management program.

From the CDC: Considerations for Communities of Faith Communities