Supreme Court Saves Worship—for Now

By Mark A. Kellner
Posted December 01, 2020

Issuing an unsigned majority opinion a few minutes before midnight on November 25, the Supreme Court of the United States blocked New York State from enforcing attendance restrictions on houses of worship. The rare middle-of-the-night decree was in stark contrast to two earlier 2020 rulings involving churches in Nevada and California.

The first religious liberty challenge to face the Supreme Court since the September 18 death of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it’s also the first in which recently confirmed Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett participated as a member of the court. Her presence made a difference.

The cases before the high court involved appeals from two different faiths—the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and the Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America—including two of its congregations and two of its rabbis.

The restrictions in question were New York’s color-coordinated zoned areas, which limited the numbers of attendees at houses of worship according to the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in each area. “In red zones, no more than 10 people were permitted to attend each service, and in orange zones, attendance was capped at 25,” summarized a National Public Radio article.

The Supreme Court’s majority opinion declared the restrictions unconstitutional: “The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. … Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”

The majority also highlighted the contrast to retail establishments, which were not subject to any restrictions at all in an “orange” zone.

A Divided Court

The 5-4 vote, with a majority made up of Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch, in addition to Barrett, proved the significance of Barrett’s recent appointment. Reported NPR, “The decision marked a major shift for the court, in essence at least a partial reversal of previous rulings, as well as a clear indication of the court’s dramatic move to the right with the addition of new Justice Amy Coney Barrett in place of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

Also intriguing is the obvious and highly sensitive division among the justices along the lines of religious liberty. Its previous cases concerning public worship during the current pandemic have narrowly ruled the other way, in favor of state mandates: “In May, the justices divided 5-4 in turning down a request from a San Diego-area church to issue an order that would allow it to hold Sunday services. … In July, the court again divided 5-4 in denying a request from a Nevada church for an order that would have allowed it to hold in-person services on the same terms that other facilities in the state, including casinos, were allowed to operate,” noted SCOTUSBlog, a website dedicated to Supreme Court analysis.

And now Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, in the Supreme Court’s latest decision, has also “filed an unusually acerbic concurring opinion.”

Concerning New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Gorsuch wrote, “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,” the last callout being a reference to acupuncturists.

Gorsuch accused Chief Justice John Roberts of “a serious rewriting of history” as well as invoked martial overtones: “We may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack.”

While Roberts, in his response, appeared unprovoked, Cuomo later blasted the Supreme Court’s decision as “a political statement.” Said Cuomo, “Look, I’m a former altar boy, Catholic, Catholic grammar school, Catholic high school, Jesuits at college. So, I fully respect religion and if there’s a time in life when we need it, the time is now. But we want to make sure we keep people safe at the same time, and that’s the balance we’re trying to hit, especially in this holiday season.”

Freedom in the Balance

Much has been written during the past nine months concerning worship in relation to the spread of COVID-19 infections, perhaps most memorably “superspreader” events like the Skagit Valley Chorale rehearsal in Mount Vernon, Washington, on March 10, where two members died and 45 fell ill.

If the ongoing trend during this pandemic is any indication, the contention over religious liberty is not going away any time soon. And it very well could be that the highest court in the nation, the Supreme Court, may take on a decisive role in its future. 

What’s ahead for religious liberty? According to a Bible study, “Freedom and Liberty,” led by Pastor Doug Batchelor, the outlook isn’t promising: “Our freedoms in our Constitution are being eroded. Religious liberty is a precious thing we will someday lose.”

How can he be so sure? Those who study the Scriptures know that they prophesy in detail about this very issue, in particular what comes of it in the last days of our world. “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Revelation 1:3), declared John the Revelator. 

Another video message, “The Price of Liberty,” examines what the Bible says about freedom. For what would you sell your freedom of conscience? Is it, in fact, being sold as we speak? “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness” (Romans 6:16)?

Check out these resources and learn how to walk the path of true freedom.

Mark Kellner
Mark A. Kellner is a staff writer for Amazing Facts International. He is a veteran journalist whose work has been published in Religion News Service, The Washington Times, and numerous computer magazines.
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