Friday, December 18, 2020
Court Rebuffs Religious School Challenge to State School Closing Order
The Supreme Court yesterday rejected a religious private school's challenge to Kentucky's school-closing order, at least for now, given that the order is set to expire shortly. But the move allows the religious school to renew its challenge should the order come back into effect in January.
The action differs from another Court action earlier this week, remanding a case that challenges Colorado's capacity restrictions as applied to religious services. In the Colorado case, the Court's action, taken together with its earlier ruling in a New York case, will probably end the state's restrictions--even though the state had already revoked its restriction (in light of the New York case). In other words, the Court seemed to stretch to effectively strike Colorado's restrictions. In the Kentucky case, in contrast, the Court declined to intervene because the restriction is set to expire soon. In other words, the Court stayed its hand, even though the restriction was in place at the time of the ruling, because it would soon expire.
The case tests Kentucky's school-closing order--an order that applies to all schools (secular and religious) in the state. A religious school challenged the order, arguing that it violated the Free Exercise Clause, because a companion order permitted other in-person activities (restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, indoor weddings, bowling alleys, and gaming halls) to remain open. (This, even though the order treated all schools alike.) A district court issued a preliminary injunction against the school closing order, but the Sixth Circuit stayed the injunction pending appeal (so that the order remained valid as the religious school appealed). The Supreme Court denied the religious school's petition to vacate the stay, largely or entirely because it's set to expire soon.
The Court said "[u]nder all circumstances, especially the timing and the impending expiration of the Order, we deny the application without prejudice to the applicants or other parties seeking a new preliminary injunction if the Governor issues a school-closing order that applies in the new year."
Justices Alito and Gorsuch wrote separate dissents, but joined each other's. Justice Alito argued that the Court should've granted relief, because "timing is in no way the applicants' fault." Justice Gorsuch wrote that the Sixth Circuit failed to consider the school-closing order alongside the business-closing order--and therefore failed to compare the closed religious school to open businesses---in evaluating whether the two orders together discriminated against religion. He also argued that the Sixth Circuit failed to consider a "hybrid" claim, that the school-closing order also violated the fundamental right of parents "to direct the education of their children."