September 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

The U.S. Supreme Court on July 27 declined a request by a Nevada church for an emergency injunction against a state public-health order that limits attendance at religious services to 50 people.

The vote was 5-4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts joining the court’s liberal bloc to rule against the request from Calvary Chapel, which is located in the west-central Nevada town of Dayton.  

It was the second time the high court ruled against a house of worship seeking to avoid restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. In late May, also by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court rejected a similar request from a California church that contested a state order that restricts the number of people who can attend religious services.  

Writing on Americans United’s “Wall of Separation” blog, Alex J. Luchenitser, AU associate legal director, observed, “The Supreme Court acted properly in refusing to intervene in either case. The constitutional right to worship freely is precious. But religious freedom should never be used as a justification for imposing harm on people. In the midst of a pandemic, a court decision overriding a public-health order could do exactly that. Numerous cor­onavirus outbreaks have been traced to religious services. 

“Courts that have considered challenges to public-health orders that restrict religious services have generally asked whether similar restrictions are imposed on comparable nonreligious institutions,” Luch­enitser added. “These kinds of cases should be decided on detailed factual records, with the benefit of scientific evidence on what kinds of institutions and activities pose the greatest risk of infection. Overriding the judgments of elected officials by suspending a public-health order in an expedited legal proceeding like the Nevada and California cases would risk making a bad call – one that could cost people their lives.” 

In a brief defending Nevada’s pol­icies, state officials noted that houses of worship are actually being treated better than secular venues, where all events are flatly banned.  

“Public attendance is prohibited for all musical performances, live entertainment, concerts, competitions, sporting events and any events with live performances,” the officials pointed out in the brief.  

The case is Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak.

Americans United has been defending public-health orders against religion-based challenges around the country, filing 26 legal briefs in courts in 11 states. In one recent case from New Mexico, Luchenitser presented oral argument by videoconference.  

In other news about the coronavirus pandemic:  

• A federal court in New York has rejected a legal challenge brought by the owners of Orthodox Jewish sleep­away camps, which sought to open despite a state order closing all overnight summer camps for children.

“That determination was rationally made on the basis that over­night camps involve children and adults sleeping and eating in close proximity in an enclosed space for an extended period of time, greatly increasing the risk of spread of the virus,” said Chris Liberati-Conant, New York assistant attorney general. 

The Association of Jewish Camp Operators, which represents 75 Orthodox camps around the state, sued, arguing that refusing to allow the camps to open would hamper the religious-freedom rights of Jewish families.

U.S. District Judge Glenn Suddaby disagreed. Denying a request for an emergency injunction to open the sleepaway camps, Suddaby wrote that he had to take into account “the extenuating circumstances of the COVID-19 virus and its impact through­out the world.”

Observed Suddaby, “Although the State of New York has made prog­ress in limiting the transmission of the virus in recent weeks, the recent resurgence of positive COVID-19 cases in several states raises concerns and is a painful reminder that the fight is far from over.” (Association of Jewish Camp Operators v. Cuomo)  

The New York Times reported in July that houses of worship are a major source for coronavirus outbreaks. 

Analyzing data from across the country, The Times found that more than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Medical experts have warned that religious services can be powerful vectors for transmission of the coronavirus.

“It’s an ideal setting for transmission,” Carlos del Rio, an infectious-disease expert at Emory University, told the newspaper. “You have a lot of people in a closed space. And they’re speaking loudly, they’re singing. All those things are exactly what you don’t want.”