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             Researh Service





UPDATE: Banning Religious Assemblies to

Stop the Spread of COVID-19



Updated June 1, 2020
Update: On May 29, 2020, the Supreme Court denied two petitions for certiorari appealing lower court
decisions on gathering bans in ilin ois and Ca ifor-ia. The U. S. Courts of Appeals for the Seventh C i7ruit
and Ninth Circuit had both affirmed preliminary rulings in favor of the government, rejecting churches'
requests for preliminary injunctions that would have prevented the two states from enforcing their orders
limiting mass gatherings. The Supreme Court denied the petition in the Illinois case, noting that the state
had issued new guidance providing guidelines for worship services. In the California case, Chief Justice
Roberts wrote an opinion concurring in the Court 's one-sentence order denying the appeal to explain why
he believed the churches were not entitled to an injunction. In particular, he said that California's
restrictions on places of worship appeared consistent with the Free Exercise Clause because churches
were being treated similarly to comparable secular gatherings. He also emphamsized that, under the
circumstances, courts likely should not be second-guessing the public health decisions made by state
officials. Four Justices would have granted the California churches'petition. Justice Kavanaugh wrote a
separate opinion stating that in his view, the California order unconstitutionally discriminated against
religious worship by treating worship services worse than comparable secular businesses. There are a
number of ongoing court proceedings across the country, and it is possible that another case challenging
a gathering ban on First Amendment grounds will reach the Supreme Court.
The original post from April 16, 2020, is below.
Most of the United States is now subject to some form of state or local order directing residents to stay at
home and closing nonessential businesses in response to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID- 19). While
the particulars of the orders vary, some state and local orders prohibit in-person religious gatherings and
require houses of worship to shut down physical facilities. To the extent that the orders burden residents'
exercise of religion, they may implicate federal and state protections for religious freedom, including the
Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. Some of these bans are already being
challenged in court, and at least one Kentucky church has prevailed in its legal challenge: on April 11,
2020, a federal district court entered a temporary restraining order preventing the Louisville mayor from
prohibiting drive-in church services. By contrast, a day earlier, another federal court had declined to
grant a California church an exemption from a San Diego order prohibiting in-person religious gatherings.


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