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Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn Asks SCOTUS to Block New York’s COVID-19 Restrictions on Houses of Worship

The Meyers Nave Shelter in Place litigation team provides this important alert to an emergency application filed on November 12 with the U.S. Supreme Court by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn seeking an injunction precluding enforcement of New York Governor Cuomo’s limitations on in-person religious services. The filing notes that the New York COVID-19 restriction caps church attendance at 10-25 patrons in designated geographic zones while not imposing similar numerical caps on other secular activities. A federal district court in New York and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit declined the Diocese’s attempts to block the limits, leading to the appeal to SCOTUS. The petition is available here and below are links to news articles regarding the views of Justice Alito and Justice Barrett on this issue.

How Has SCOTUS Ruled in Similar Cases?
The Supreme Court recently rejected similar challenges by religious groups in California (South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom) and Nevada (Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak). In both cases, the decisions split 5-4 with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the court’s four liberals. While the majority’s denial in Calvary Chapel was issued without an opinion, the dissenters issued detailed opinions. In South Bay United Pentecostal, Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor voted to deny the injunction but did not write an opinion. Chief Justice Roberts concurred in denying the injunction and filed a two-page opinion. Justice Kavanaugh filed a three-page dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch. Justice Alito also dissented but did not write an opinion. Please click here for an important analysis of the interplay between the South Bay United Pentecostal and Calvary Chapel decisions.

Deference to Governments During Emergencies
In South Bay United Pentecostal, Chief Justice Roberts applied the principles of Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts (197 U.S. 11 (1905), noting that the “precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement.” He focused on the “especially broad” latitude to be afforded to officials entrusted with protecting the health and safety of the people, particularly in times “fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties.” Those broad limits “should not be subject to second-guessing by an unelected federal judiciary, which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people.” However, it is also important to note that he stated the Order places “temporary” numerical restrictions on public gatherings to address the health emergency. Please click here for an analysis of the South Bay United Pentecostal decision.

Why We’re Watching SCOTUS Cases
Given the recent appointment of Justice Barrett and the new makeup of SCOTUS since the South Bay United Pentecostal ruling where Chief Justice Robert’s concurrence gave deference to public health officials grappling with areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties, this is a case that we are carefully watching. In Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Governor Cuomo, the Diocese has specifically asked the Supreme Court to examine the viability of Jacobson in public health emergencies when fundamental rights such as Free Exercise are at stake. We are making our way through the recently filed petition, evaluating the legal arguments and reviewing how this may impact cases in California. Governor Cuomo’s response to the Diocese’s emergency petition is due November 18 and we will continue to provide updates on this case and its impacts in California.