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Justices flip script on COVID-19 worship bans, but health official urges closures

Supreme Court intervenes in New York and California cases.

First New York.

Now California.

With the addition of a fifth, solidly conservative member — new Justice Amy Coney Barrett — the U.S. Supreme Court has flipped the script on months of legal battles over pandemic-era worship gatherings.

“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 Neil Gorsuch wrote last week as the 5-4 court blocked New York from imposing strict attendance limits on religious services.

Back in July, before Barrett replaced the late liberal icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court had rejected — by the same 5-4 margin — a challenge to restrictions on religious services in Nevada.


Related: Read all our top stories on faith and COVID-19


Then on Thursday, the court “sided with a California church protesting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pandemic-related restrictions on indoor worship services,” notes the Washington Post’s Robert Barnes. The brief, unsigned order returns the issue to lower court judges and “suggests the state’s ban on indoor services is likely to fall,” reports the Los Angeles Times’ David G. Savage.

“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.”

In San Francisco, Catholic Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has complained that the city’s “treatment of churches is discriminatory and violates the right to worship,” as the Catholic News Agency explains. For more details on the California battle, see Sacramento Bee writer Dale Kasler’s story this week on churches defying Newsom’s order.

In related news, the Deseret News’ Kelsey Dallas highlights a clash over in-person classes in religious schools in Kentucky. And Boston.com’s Nik DeCosta-Klipa covers Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s concerns over “COVID-19 clusters stemming from religious gatherings.”

Here in my home state of Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate that might help slow the spread of COVID-19. But he declared Thursday a day of prayer and fasting over the coronavirus, as The Associated Press’ Ken Miller reports.

Amid a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths nationally, a top public health official Thursday “called on religious leaders to keep their worship spaces closed, despite rising protests from some church leaders,” according to NPR’s Tom Gjelten:

“The virus is having a wonderful time right now, taking advantage of circumstances where people have let their guard go down,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “Churches gathering in person is a source of considerable concern and has certainly been an instance where super spreading has happened and could happen again.”

Holly Meyer, The Tennessean’s religion writer, also quotes Collins, himself a regular churchgoer:

While speaking Thursday with a top Southern Baptist leader, Collins encouraged  Christians to seek out the truth about the vaccines awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration instead of the misinformation and conspiracy theories being spread out of fear and anxiety. Collins pointed to a Bible verse in Philippians 4 for guidance.

“‘Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things,'” Collins said. “That would apply really well right here. So whatever is true.”

In one of the week’s more interesting features, CNN’s Kristen Rogers delves into a deadly lesson for houses of worship from the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed at least 50 million people worldwide.

Read the rest of the column.

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].


“Weekend Plug-in,”  featuring analysis, insights and top headlines from the world of faith, is produced in partnership with Religion Unplugged.

Filed under: Coronavirus COVID-19 Inside Story legal cases masks National religious freedom Supreme Court Top Stories U.S. Supreme Court vaccines Weekend Plug-In worship restrictions

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