The US Supreme Court stands in Washington, DC on December 11, 2020.
Stefani Reynolds | Getty Images
The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in favor of a rural Colorado church that challenged the capacity limits put in place by Governor Jared Polis to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.
In a brief, unsigned order, the Supreme Court overturned the rulings of the lower courts that had refused to block restrictions that limited visiting some churches in risk areas to 25% of their typical occupancy with a 50-person cap.
The High Plains Harvest Church tried to block the restrictions, arguing that the state rules were illegally targeting the religion. The decision came after Colorado lifted the restrictions in response to a November Supreme Court ruling blocking similar rules in New York.
Judge Elena Kagan, along with fellow liberal judges Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, contradicted the court's order. In a single dissenting paragraph, Kagan wrote that the Covid-19 rules were no longer in effect and that, given the court's decision in November, "there is no reason to believe that Colorado will reverse course".
Much like the New York case, known as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn versus Cuomo, the Colorado case was a church that argued that state rules were more restrictive on churches and other places of worship than on businesses.
"Today in Colorado it is perfectly legal for hundreds of shoppers to curl up in a Lowes or other large store or visit one of the thousands of other non-draconian retail stores," wrote Barry Arrington, an attorney for the Church.
"But if 51 people met to worship God in a small rural church in Ault, Colorado, they would do so at the risk of fines and imprisonment," Arrington wrote.
Google Earth view of the High Plains Harvest Church in Ault. Co.
Arrington added that his clients "feel like they have stepped through the mirror into a world where the right to shop for gardening supplies is a preferred activity, while meeting as a corporation to worship God together is in the category of." Unnecessary was referred. " even superfluous. "
With the exception of the three Liberals who found dissent, it is not clear how the remaining nine members of the court voted, even though at least five of the court's six Republican candidates sided with the Church in the case against the Democratic governor.
In the case of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, ruled 5-4, Chief Justice John Roberts was in the minority with Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor. In this case, he drafted a dissent stating that the New York Rules had effectively been repealed.
"The numerical capacity limits of 10 and 25 people seem overly restrictive depending on the zone," wrote Roberts at the time. "And it may well be that such restrictions violate the freedom of exercise clause. However, it is not necessary that we decide on this serious and difficult issue at this point."
The Supreme Court decision on Tuesday sent the case back to the US 10th Court of Appeals, which previously ruled Colorado.
The November court's unsigned ruling said New York's church capacity was "worrying".
"The members of this court are not experts in public health and we should respect the judgment of those with specific expertise and responsibilities in the field," the court wrote. "But even in a pandemic, the constitution cannot be repealed and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, which effectively prevent many from worship, are at the heart of the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion."
That decision appeared to mean a postponement for the court after Justice Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump's third appointment to the bank, was upheld.
In cases where the court ruled before Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death in September, where religious interests had challenged the Covid restrictions, the California and Nevada court had maintained the boundaries.
Tuesday's decision comes as Covid cases spike across the country and hospital stays top 110,000. The US death toll from the virus was 300,000 on Monday.
Attorneys at Colorado and High Plains Harvest Church did not immediately return requests for comment.
The case is High Plains Harvest Church v Polis, No. 20A105.