Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Covid-19 and Religious Liberty

In Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Cuomo, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn sought emergency injunctive relief, claiming that an Executive Order issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo regarding, among other things, capacity limits at houses of worship, violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.[1]

The Free Exercise Clause provides citizens with the liberty to freely hold and practice religious beliefs without government interference. The right to freely exercise religion, however, is not absolute, and the United States Supreme Court’s jurisprudence has established several principles regarding the scope of religious liberty. First, although the government may not regulate religious beliefs, it may, in some circumstances, regulate religious practices.[2] Second, the government may not enact laws that impose a substantial burden on religious practices.[3] Third, courts may not assess the validity of particular religious beliefs when deciding if the Free Exercise Clause’s protections apply.[4] Fourth, the government may not coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs.[5] Fifth, the government may not target or discriminate against religion generally or specific religious denominations.[6]

In Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, the issue concerned whether Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order impermissibly targeted houses of worship for disparate treatment. By way of background, in response to the rising rates of Covid-19 infections in New York, Governor Cuomo adopted a color-coded microcluster model that designated areas of New York as red, orange, or yellow zones. These zones were defined as follows:

Red zones: areas where the seven-day rolling positivity rate was above 4% for ten days.

Orange zones: areas where the seven-day rolling positivity rate was above 3% for ten days.

Yellow zones: areas where the seven-day rolling positivity rate was above 2.5% for ten days.[7]

In red zones, no more than ten persons were permitted to attend religious services, and in yellow zones, no more than twenty-five persons could attend religious services, regardless of the seating capacity of a particular house of worship. In these same zones, however, all businesses deemed “essential,” which included acupuncture facilities and liquor stores, were not subject to these capacity restrictions. Furthermore, in “orange” zones, even “non-essential” businesses were not subject to any capacity restrictions.[8]

In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court held that Governor Cuomo’s restrictions on gatherings at various houses of worship in red and orange zones violated the Free Exercise Clause.[9] To begin with, the Court held that these restrictions did not constitute “laws of general applicability” (i.e., the capacity limits applied exclusively to places of worship), and thus applied strict scrutiny, which required New York to demonstrate that the Executive Order furthered a compelling government interest, was narrowly tailored, and constituted the least restrictive means of achieving the asserted governmental interest.[10]

Although holding that the interest in reducing the spread of Covid-19 was undoubtedly compelling, the Court held that the restrictions were not narrowly tailored. For example, the capacity limits could have been tied to the size of a church or synagogue, particularly given that, in the red and orange zones, fourteen churches could accommodate at least 700 people, and two could accommodate at least 1,000 people.[11] Given these facts, the Court noted that “[i]t is hard to believe that admitting more than 10 people to a 1,000-seat church or 400-seat synagogue would create a more serious health risk than the many other activities that the State allows.”[12] Moreover, as Justice Neil Gorsuch stated in his concurring opinion, these restrictions applied “no matter the precautions taken, including social distancing, wearing masks, leaving doors and windows open, forgoing singing, and disinfecting spaces between services.”[13] This was particularly troublesome given that, as Justice Gorsuch stated, secular businesses deemed “essential” faced no similar restrictions:

[T]he Governor has chosen to impose no capacity restrictions on certain businesses he considers “essential.” And it turns out the businesses the Governor considers essential include hardware stores, acupuncturists, and liquor stores. Bicycle repair shops, certain signage companies, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents are all essential too. So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians. Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?[14]

Additionally, Justice Gorsuch explained that the differential treatment of places of worship implicated precisely the type of discrimination that the Free Exercise prohibited:

People may gather inside for extended periods in bus stations and airports, in laundromats and banks, in hardware stores and liquor shops. No apparent reason exists why people may not gather, subject to identical restrictions, in churches or synagogues, especially when religious institutions have made plain that they stand ready, able, and willing to follow all the safety precautions required of “essential” businesses and perhaps more besides. The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as “essential” as what happens in secular spaces. Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all “essential” while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.[15]

Thus, the restrictions, “by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”[16]

Chief Justice Roberts dissented, arguing that, because Governor Cuomo had recently re-codified the areas in question as yellow zones, and thus removed the restrictions on the houses of worship in question, the issue was essentially moot.[17]  For this reason, although questioning the constitutionality of Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order, Chief Justice Roberts did not believe that the Court needed to decide the issue at this juncture.[18]  

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Kagan, also dissented, arguing that the restrictions treated houses of worship identically to other similarly situated businesses.[19] In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor relied on the Court’s prior decisions in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom and Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, where the Court held that the government may restrict attendance at houses of worship provided that comparable secular institutions faced equally restrictive measures.[20] Based on these decisions, Justice Sotomayor argued that the Executive Order passed constitutional muster because it imposed equally stringent restrictions on other activities where “large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time,” such as “lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances,” [21] Put differently, the Executive Order treated differently “only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks, and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.”[22]

Regardless of what one thinks of the Court’s decision, the justices’ opinions were quite revealing for other reasons.

1.    Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch aren’t best friends

Based on the language and tone of their opinions, it appears that tension exists between Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch. For example, in his concurrence, Justice Gorsuch severely criticized Chief Justice Roberts’s concurrence in South Bay United Pentecostal Church, stating as follows:

What could justify so radical a departure from the First Amendment’s terms and long-settled rules about its application? Our colleagues offer two possible answers. Initially, some point to a solo concurrence in South Bay Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, 590 U. S. ___ (2020), in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE expressed willingness to defer to executive orders in the pandemic’s early stages based on the newness of the emergency and how little was then known about the disease. At that time, COVID had been with us, in earnest, for just three months. Now, as we round out 2020 and face the prospect of entering a second calendar year living in the pandemic’s shadow, that rationale has expired according to its own terms. Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical. Rather than apply a nonbinding and expired concurrence from South Bay, courts must resume applying the Free Exercise Clause.[23]

In fact, Justice Gorsuch went so far as to suggest that Chief Justice Roberts, by refusing the rule on the merits, was concerned more with political rather than legal considerations:

In the end, I can only surmise that much of the answer [to why the dissenters did not find the Executive Order unconstitutional] lies in a particular judicial impulse to stay out of the way in times of crisis. But if that impulse may be understandable or even admirable in other circumstances, we may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack. Things never go well when we do.[24]

In Justice Gorsuch’s view, “[t]o turn away religious leaders bringing meritorious claims just because the Governor decided to hit the “off ” switch in the shadow of our review would be, in my view, just another sacrifice of fundamental rights in the name of judicial modesty.”[25]

Chief Justice Roberts responded to Justice Gorsuch’s concurring opinion in an equally dismissive tone, stating as follows:

To be clear, I do not regard my dissenting colleagues as “cutting the Constitution loose during a pandemic,” yielding to “a particular judicial impulse to stay out of the way in times of crisis,” or “shelter[ing] in place when the Constitution is under attack.” Ante, at 3, 5–6 (opinion of GORSUCH, J.). They simply view the matter differently after careful study and analysis reflecting their best efforts to fulfill their responsibility under the Constitution.[26]

The tone of both opinions suggests that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Gorsuch are not the best of friends. The reason is likely that Justice Gorsuch, an originalist who strives to uphold the rule of law regardless of an outcome’s desirability, views Chief Justice Roberts as capitulating to, even prioritizing, political considerations over principled legal analysis.

2.    Chief Justice Roberts is arguably prioritizing politics over the rule of law

Chief Justice Roberts’s approach to deciding cases has changed considerably from his previously expressed fidelity to originalism and to a modest judicial role that, in his words, was analogous to umpires calling balls and strikes.

Indeed, as Justice Gorsuch intimated, in some cases Chief Justice Roberts appears more concerned with preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy than with engaging in principled legal analysis. And the consequences are likely to cause precisely the result that Roberts seeks to avoid: the politicization of the judiciary. After all, what is the criteria by which to decide whether a decision will preserve the Court’s legitimacy? Little more than a justice’s subjective values. Put differently, concerns regarding what constitutes a “legitimate” decision are predicated on nothing more than prevailing political attitudes rather than principled legal considerations. Such an approach abdicates the judicial role and weakens the rule of law. As Justice Gorsuch stated, “we may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack.”[27]

Additionally, Chief Justice Roberts’s jurisprudence suggests that he lacks a coherent judicial philosophy. On one hand, for example, in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice Roberts voted to invalidate two provisions of the Voting Rights Act in (despite a vote of 98-0 to re-authorize these provisions), but on the other hand, in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, Roberts went to great – and dubious – lengths to uphold the Affordable Care Act. This is just one of many examples where Chief Justice Roberts’s adherence to certain principles, such as deference to the coordinate branches, is inconsistent and unpredictable.

Simply put, Chief Justice Roberts’s focus on preserving the Court’s legitimacy is likely to cause the very result he so ardently seeks to avoid, namely, politicizing the Court and the judiciary.

3.    Ideology continues to influence the justices’ decisions

It is not difficult to predict how the justices will rule in cases involving, for example, the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Indeed, the justices’ decisions in such cases often coincide with their perceived ideological preferences. For example, in cases involving affirmative action, it is all but certain that Justice Sonia Sotomayor will vote to uphold almost any affirmative action policy. In cases involving abortion, it is all but certain that Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito will vote to uphold restrictions on abortion and argue for the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Not surprisingly, the Court’s 5-4 decisions often predictably split along ideological lines. Some may argue that these decisions reflect the justices’ different judicial and interpretive philosophies, but the fact remains that such decisions almost always coincide with the justices’ policy predilections. And that is precisely what has politicized the judiciary.

These and other concerns lead to the conclusion that perhaps the best way for the Court to preserve its legitimacy is for it to deny certiorari in politically and socially divisive cases where the Constitution’s text is silent or ambiguous. Simply put, the Court should leave more disputes to the democratic process.

 

[1] 592 U.S.              (2020), available at: 20A87 Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo (11/25/2020) (supremecourt.gov).

[2] See Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878)

[3] See Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).

[4] See United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78 (1044).

[5]  See Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass’n, 485 U.S. 439 (1988).

[6] See Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc., v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993).

[7] See Lisa L. Colengelo, Yellow, Orange, and Red: How New York’s Covid-19 Microclusters Work (Nov. 24, 2020), available at: Yellow, orange and red: How New York's COVID-19 microclusters work | Newsday

[8] 592 U.S.              (2020), available at: 20A87 Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo (11/25/2020) (supremecourt.gov).

[9] See id.

[10] See id.

[11] See id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. (Gorsuch, J., concurring)

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] See id.

[18] See id. (Justice Breyer also dissented on similar grounds).

[19] See id. (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[20] See id.; South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, 590 U.S.                 , (2020), available at; 19a1044_pok0.pdf (supremecourt.gov); Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, 591 U.S.      , available at: 19a1070_08l1.pdf (supremecourt.gov)

[21] Id. (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[22] Id.

[23] Id. (Gorsuch, J. concurring).

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. (Roberts, J., concurring).

[27] Id. (Gorsuch, J., concurring).

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