“If any governments try to go down the path of closing worship again, this time around we have the benefit of the Supreme Court’s numerous rulings.”
The spread of the Delta variant has rekindled a debate that raged in the Supreme Court last term as houses of worship charged that state Covid-related restrictions were violating their religious liberty rights.
By and large, the justices ruled against the states and set fresh precedent in a series of emergency orders issued without the benefit of regular briefs or oral arguments. Now, groups that won in the first round of lawsuits hope the stern warnings from the conservative majority last term will influence states as they consider new restrictions, including possible vaccine mandates.
“If any governments try to go down the path of closing worship again, this time around we have the benefit of the Supreme Court’s numerous rulings making clear that worship is not just important, but essential,” Eric Rassbach, vice president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told CNN.
Jim Oleske, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, expects the courts to be busy.
“The Delta wave is likely to prompt a whole new round of litigation, with legal challenges being made to any new limitations on gatherings and any new requirements for masking or vaccination,” Oleske said.
The Supreme Court set new boundaries last term, voting, for example, 5-4 in one case in April to block California’s restrictions on at-home
The restriction had been challenged by a pastor and his wife seeking to host at-home Bible study. The court adopted what legal experts refer to as “most favored nation” status. Simplified, that means that if the government makes an exemption for anyone, it has to make an exemption for the religious plaintiff.
he issue of vaccine mandates, however, is not as simple. Groups fought for houses of worship to get exemptions from Covid restrictions they believed were available to secular entities, but they may see vaccine mandates in a different light, given that vaccine requirements likely include accommodations for religious believers, and that the government could have a more compelling reason for its actions.
“One important question is whether the court will be as solicitous of religious objections in the vaccination context as it was when dealing with Covid rules that had the effect of limiting the size of gatherings for religious worship,” Okeske said.