SCOTUS Ruling on Religious Services During COVID Lockdowns Removes Obstacle Named Chief Justice Roberts

Posted: Nov 26, 2020 1:45 AM
SCOTUS Ruling on Religious Services During COVID Lockdowns Removes Obstacle Named Chief Justice Roberts

Source: Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP

Alas, we have a victory for religious freedom in the COVID lockdown era. The Supreme Court recently ruled that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo illegally targeted churches in his COVID lockdown order—and Justice Amy Coney Barrett was the deciding vote. In the 5-4 decision, the Court ruled Cuomo’s edict violated First Amendment rights (via NYT):

The Supreme Court late Wednesday night barred restrictions on religious services in New York that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had imposed to combat the coronavirus.

The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the court’s three liberal members in dissent. The order was the first in which the court’s newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, played a decisive role.


In an unsigned opinion, the majority said Mr. Cuomo’s restrictions violated the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said Mr. Cuomo had treated secular activities more favorably than religious ones.

“It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques,” Justice Gorsuch wrote.

The court’s order addressed two applications: one filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, the other by two synagogues, an Orthodox Jewish organization and two individuals. The applications both said Mr. Cuomo’s restrictions violated constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion, and the one from the synagogues added that Mr. Cuomo had “singled out a particular religion for blame and retribution for an uptick in a societywide pandemic.”

This is a breath of fresh air since the Supreme Court had previously either upheld COVID restrictions on religious services or shot down the legal challenges brought before them. In those cases, Chief Justice John Roberts, who arguably is now the face of the Court’s liberal wing, was the one who delivered the death blow. In the Nevada case, SCOTUS upheld limitations concerning church attendance but was fine with movie theaters and casinos operating with a more cavalier capacity policy. It made no sense, and Justice Neil Gorsuch torched the entire premise in his dissent in just a single paragraph.  With Barrett on the Court, Roberts is now an irrelevant factor. We have a solid 5-4 majority now. Expect more good things with Justice Amy Coney Barrett in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat. 

Now, granted, she’s not going to bat .1000 every time, but I’d trust her to not go the John Roberts route and totally screw us. I could be wrong, but so far—so good. Remember, when Roberts was nominated by George W. Bush, he needed someone who could get 60 votes. With Harry Reid setting the precedent of nuking the filibuster, Senate Republicans and President Trump were able to nominate eminently qualified jurists of a more conservative mold. I think pro-life activists might be disappointed since the overturning of Roe v. Wade is not on the docket, nor will it be for the foreseeable future. These aren’t legislators, which is something Senate Democrats have yet to understand. It’s not like these nine jurists set about their term deciding what laws they want to change. Ninety percent of their job is what the late Justice Antonin Scalia called “lawyer’s work.” In other words, super boring stuff. Now, regarding Second Amendment rights, I think should someone from New Jersey or any “may issue” carry state file a challenge regarding the justifiable need clause in these areas regarding obtaining a concealed firearm permit, the Court’s chances of hearing arguments have gone up dramatically. It only takes four votes in order for the Court to accept the case. Also, challenges against the ban on so-called assault weapons at the state-level might be able to get their day in court. These are some of the biggest battles that have yet to be decided on the issue of gun rights. 

First, we had arguments on Obamacare, and reports are showing that the Supreme Court might uphold it. Yet, The New York Times added that she was hard to read in this case. Then again, the game of projecting how the Court will decide is a dangerous one. We all know how that turned out for conservatives during the initial legal challenge to Obamacare in 2012. Then again, we never accounted for John Roberts re-writing the Obama administration’s argument for the law’s constitutionality. They never argued it was a tax; it was a penalty. Remember that? Well, Roberts threw a ‘here’s what they really meant’ curveball, put the ACA under the taxing authority, and has been working hard to become the male version of Ruth Bader Ginsburg ever since. 

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