The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday delivered another win for churches battling COVID-19 restrictions, sending cases in Colorado and New Jersey back to lower courts and asking them to reconsider their decisions in light of a recent high court decision favoring New York houses of worship.
The Colorado case involves a congregation, High Plains Harvest Church, that sued the governor, saying the restrictions on houses of worship were more severe than those on businesses. A district court ruled against the church in August, but on Tuesday the Supreme Court vacated the decision.
“The August 10 order of the United States District Court for the District of Colorado is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit with instructions to remand to the District Court for further consideration in light of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo,” the unsigned order said, referencing a November Supreme Court decision in which the high court prohibited New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo from enforcing a restriction limiting houses of worship in Covid hotspots to 10 and 25 persons during the pandemic, no matter the size of the building.
Significantly, Chief Justice John Roberts – who voted against churches in the New York case – sided with the conservative bloc in the Colorado case. The pastor of High Plains Harvest said his church practices social distancing and follows health guidelines on battling the virus.
Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the order, saying the case was moot because Colorado has since lifted restrictions on churches. Last week, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and the state health department issued an order listing worship services as “essential.” Attendees must still wear masks and practice six feet of social distancing “between members of different households.”
“Colorado has lifted all those limits,” Kagan wrote in a dissent, joined by Breyer and Sotomayor. “The State has explained that it took that action in response to this Court’s recent decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo.”
The New Jersey case involves a Catholic church, Saint Anthony of Padua Church in North Caldwell, N.J., and a Jewish synagogue in Lakewood, N.J. Leaders of both houses of worship said they are willing to follow the same social distancing and health guidelines as businesses. The New Jersey guidelines limit houses of worship to 25 percent of capacity or 150 people, whichever is less. A lower court in October upheld the restrictions, but on Tuesday the Supreme Court vacated that decision and sent it to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals “with instructions to remand to the District Court for further consideration in light of” the earlier New York decision. The order was unsigned, and there were no recorded dissents.