Freedom of Religion Trumps COVID Regulations: A Summary of Recent Supreme Court Rulings

By: Jack Morgenstein

With the whirlwind 2020 has been, it’s easy for even relatively recent history to slip out of sight and out of mind. The October 26th confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett was historical for a number of reasons. The commentary surrounding this event was clearly divided along partisan lines with conservative Senator Roy Blunt praising then-Judge Barrett’s incredible “brilliance and humility.” On the liberal side of the aisle, there was wide-spread outcry with the major dissent being echoed in a message chanted on the steps of the Supreme Court the night following the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “No confirmation until inauguration.” The rulings of Justice Amy Coney Barrett as well as the rest of the Supreme Court will have an impact on the entirety of our nation. As a result of all the events surrounding the presidential election in early November coupled with the ongoing pandemic, the importance of the Supreme Court may have temporarily slipped from many of our minds. However, it is important to stay up to date with the decisions emanating from our nation’s highest court. Thus, I have summarized here the three cases decided by the Supreme Court during the current term, only one of which Justice Amy Coney Barrett took part of. They are organized by decision date in reverse order. Additional links can be found at the end of this article for further reading on any of these cases.

Docket 20A87: Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Andrew M. Cuomo, Governor of New York

Of the three cases decided, this one has received the most media attention. In New York City, the COVID regulations split the city into a pathwork map of ‘green,’ orange,’ and ‘red’ zones. Within ‘orange’ zones, attendance at houses of worship was limited to 25 persons while both essential and non-essential businesses “may decide for themselves how many persons to admit.” The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn argued this was a clear violation of religion-based discrimination as protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. This argument is based on the fact religious organizations were being held to tighter restrictions than businesses, which meets previous precedent for a discriminatory practice. Within ‘red’ zones, attendance at houses of worship was limited to 10 persons while essential businesses have no limitations. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn similarly argued that this too constituted religion-based descrimination.

The Supreme Court decided this case 5-4 in favor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett supported this decision, while Justices Roberts, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan dissented. As a result of this decision, injunctive relief was granted to 26 Catholic churches within Brooklyn and 1 Orthodox Synagogue. This means these COVID regulations are halted pending further litigation through the court system.

While this case was narrowly tailored to restrictions in New York City, the decision may shed light on future rulings in upcoming cases surrounding COVID regulations. There are a few important things to note within the decision of the court. Specifically, this relief is granted because “the regulations treat houses of worship much more harshly than comparable secular facilities.” This means a similar decision may not be reached if COVID regulations were equally applied across a jurisdiction. Another important note is that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn proved “that granting relief would not harm the public interest.” They did so through proving “they have complied with all public health guidance, have implemented additional precautionary measures, and have operated at 25% or 33% capacity for months without a single outbreak.” This statement is important as a similar decision may not be reached if there is a clear proven threat to public safety proven as a result of the operation of any facility. To learn more about the precedent leading to this decision look into “the minimum requirement of neutrality” established in Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U. S. 520, 533 (1993).

Docket 19-1261: Trent Michael Taylor v. Robert Riojas, Et al.

This case concerns the two cells Texas inmate Trent Taylor was confined in for six days in September 2013. In the words of the court, “The first cell was covered, nearly floor to ceiling, in “massive amounts’ of feces”: all over the floor, the ceiling, the window, the walls, and even “packed inside the water faucet.”” As a result, Taylor feared his food and water would be contaminated and refrained from eating or drinking for four days straight. Immediately following this, Taylor was moved “to a second, frigidly cold cell, which was equipped with only a clogged drain in the floor to dispose of bodily wastes.” Taylor attempted to hold his bladder but after approximately 24 hours he involuntarily relieved himself and thus, raw sewage spilled all over the floor of the cell. Taylor was confined in this frigid cell without any clothing nor even a bunk, and thus was forced to sleep on the floor, naked, in sewage. Taylor argued this was a clear, unjustifiable violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. This case reached the Supreme Court after the Fifth Circuit granted the officers responsible qualified immunity because precedent from Brosseau v. Haugen, 2004, “shields an officer from suit when she makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she confronted”

The Supreme Court decided this case 7-1 in favor of Trent Michael Taylor. Justice Barrett was not yet confirmed during the Oral Arguments and Justice Thomas dissented with the remaining Justices all concurring. As a result of this decision, the decisions of lower courts were vacated (annulled) and the case was remanded (sent) down to the lower courts for a new ruling consistent with the holdings of the Supreme Court.

The decision held that the officers were in violation of Taylor’s Eighth Amendment Rights and able to be sued on those grounds. The Supreme Court disregarded the lower court’s opinion that the officers could not be held liable for two reasons. First, “no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.” Second, the “officers involved in Taylor’s ordeal were deliberately indifferent to the conditions of his cells….one officer, upon placing Taylor in the first feces-covered cell, remarked to another that Taylor was ‘going to have a long weekend’… [and] another officer, upon placing Taylor in the second cell, told  Taylor he hoped Taylor would ‘f***ing freeze.’” This case provides precedent for the bounds of cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, it designates that cruel and unusual punishment has no minimum time limit necessary in order to constitute such. Secondarily, it provides additional clarity on qualified immunity. Officers who are intentionally negligent are not subject to qualified immunity under the rulings of this decision.

Docket 19-1108: DeRay McKesson v. John Doe

This case concerns the outcome of a protest organized by DeRay McKesson in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This protest was in response to a shooting by a local police officer. This protest evolved from its original form to occupying a highway in front of a police headquarters. An unknown protester threw a piece of concrete, hitting Officer John Doe in the head and causing “devastating injuries in the line of duty, including loss of teeth and brain trauma.” As a result, Officer Doe sought to receive damages from DeRay McKesson under Louisiana tort law for “negligently [staging] the protest in a manner that caused the assault.” DeRay McKesson argued he was protected by the First Amendment as he simply staged the protest and the unknown perpetrator was solely responsible for the assault. This case reached the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeals of the Fifth Circuit held that DeRay McKesson could be held liable under Louisiana state law.

The Supreme Court decided this case 7-1 that Louisiana tort law was unclear in whether Officer Doe had legal grounds to pursue damages in the given circumstances. Justice Barrett was not yet confirmed during the Oral Arguments and Justice Thomas dissented with the remaining Justices all concurring. Similarly to Taylor v. Riojas, the ruling of the lower courts was vacated and this case was remanded down in order for further state law clarification before the Supreme Court could make a ruling about a First Amendment claim.

Specifically, according to the Supreme Court, “We think that the Fifth Circuit’s interpretation of state law is too uncertain a premise on which to address the question presented. The constitutional issue, though undeniably important, is implicated only if Louisiana law permits recovery under these circumstances in the first place.” Once this case goes back down to the Fifth Circuit, they will likely seek clarification from the Louisiana State Supreme Court before reaching a new decision. If this decision makes it back up to the Supreme Court, then they will make a new ruling on First Amendment protections. In the short term this case has little impact on precedent, however, in the long run it could affect the legal liability of protest organizers when protests exceed the original scope of the organizer’s plan. This precedent could have wide implications for a large variety of recent Black Lives Matter protests in cities such as Seattle and Kenosha.

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