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

The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John 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.

The court’s ruling was at odds with earlier ones concerning churches in California and Nevada. In those cases, decided in May and July, the court allowed the states’ governors to restrict attendance at religious services….

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 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….”

The above comes from a Nov. 26 story in the New York Times.

The San Diego case

Attorneys from the Thomas More Society filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari Before Judgment with the United States Supreme Court in a federal religious liberty lawsuit against California Governor Gavin Newsom. On November 24, 2020, attorneys filed the request on behalf of South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Bishop Arthur Hodges III – asking the high court to settle the circuit split concerning the constitutional standard for reviewing Free Exercise challenges to pandemic restrictions.  The church and pastor are asking the Supreme Court to put a stop to the discriminatory abuses of religious freedom by Newsom and his administration in their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas More Society Special Counsel Charles LiMandri explained the crux of the lawsuit.

“Governor Newsom, in revising his reopening restrictions under his new California ‘Blueprint’ framework, has not only continued his disparate treatment of places of worship but has exacerbated the discrimination by targeting a core practice of South Bay’s religious expression – the ability to raise one’s voice to worship God in song,” LiMandri shared. “While millions of Californians across the state in a wide range of industries have been able to resume working and shopping applying new mask-wearing and social distancing protocols, church services remain a disfavored activity in the eyes of Governor Newsom and the County of San Diego.”

In the first few months following the widespread implementation of COVID-19 restrictions by various state governors, the high court rejected South Bay’s previous application for emergency injunctive relief from pandemic restrictions that prevented the Free Exercise of religious beliefs. That first application challenged the restrictions in Governor Newsom’s executive order and California’s “Resilience Roadmap,” against in-person worship services. Justices Kavanaugh, Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch would have granted the emergency application and enjoined the restrictions back in May 2020. Justice Brett Kavanaugh authored a vigorous dissent, which was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.

A similar application out of Nevada was also denied by the Supreme Court, accompanied by lengthy dissent from Justice Samuel Alito, which was joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Kavanaugh, and separate dissents by Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh.

“No one can deny that the founders of our country considered religious liberty to be a freedom that should be unassailable from attack by any government even in the case of an emergency,” noted LiMandri. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that an ‘emergency does not increase granted power,’ however, the coronavirus pandemic has been used to justify the broad overreach of the police power of the state with regard to religious expression, effectively removing our cherished freedom of worship as a ‘first class right.’ We cannot afford to let tyranny against religion rise in the guise of well-meaning governmental ‘protections.’”

Newsom’s new “Blueprint” has manipulated data and definitions to increase reported numbers of COVID cases. In the widespread category, churches are categorized as “non-essential” are not allowed to open. As the same time, countless activities and industries are permitted to open indoors at full capacity, including – but not limited to – liquor stores, cannabis dispensaries, appliance repair, convenience stores, carwashes, florists, dry cleaners, hair salons, and pet groomers.

The “Blueprint,” which has no provision for returning to full liberty, only permits 50% church capacity at its lowest risk tier, in which less than one case per day can be found per 100,000 people.

“We seek relief from this outrageous abuse of power in the name of our sacred religious freedom, on the eve of Thanksgiving,” added LiMandri. “This national holiday is the modern incarnation of the feast celebrated 400 years ago by the pilgrims who came to the New World fleeing the religious persecution they experienced in Europe. The irony is that four centuries later, we must seek affirmation from the Supreme Court of those same foundational liberties on which America was constructed.”

In addition to Newsom, in his gubernatorial office, the complaint also names California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Acting California Public Health Officer Sandra Shewry, San Diego County Director of Emergency Services Helen Robbins-Meyer, San Diego County Public Health Officer Wilma J. Wooten, and San Diego County Sherriff William Gore, each in his or her official capacity.

Read the Thomas More Society’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari Before Judgment submitted to the United States Supreme Court in South Bay United Pentecostal Church, et al v. Gavin Newsom, et al., on November 24, 2020, here.

The above was emailed to Cal Catholic by the Thomas More Society on Nov. 25.