On Friday evening, by a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court 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. 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 restricting religious services to the lesser of 100 people or 25 percent of a building’s fire-code capacity.
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. 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.
Americans United has been defending public-health orders against religion-based challenges around the country, filing 26 briefs in courts in 11 states and presenting oral argument by videoconference in one of those cases. We’ll continue this work so that more Americans can worship safely — and are around to do so once the pandemic is over.