Church Closings during COVID: The State of Play

At the Law and Liberty site this morning, I have an essay on current litigation regarding church closings during the coronavirus epidemic. I explain why courts have reached different results, and ask why some churches, rather than others, are bringing the lawsuits. Here’s an excerpt:

So far, the lawsuits have achieved mixed results. Federal district courts in California and New Mexico, for example, have rejected challenges and ruled that the bans in those states are constitutional. Federal district courts in Kansas and Kentucky, by contrast, have ruled that the bans in those states do violate the First Amendment. This past weekend, the Sixth Circuit agreed, holding that Kentucky’s ban on church services violates the Free Exercise Clause.

These cases are very fact-specific and turn on the specific language of the bans in question. But there is another, more important reason for the courts’ division. The law with respect to religious exemptions is quite indeterminate. Under the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), no right to an exemption exists where a law is neutral and generally applicable, that is, where the law does not target religion for disfavored treatment. If a ban on public gatherings qualifies as a neutral and generally applicable law, a church cannot prevail.

If a law targets religion for disfavored treatment, by contrast, a church may have a right to a religious exemption—but not where the state can show that it has a compelling reason for enforcing the law against the church and has chosen the least restrictive means of doing so. As many have noted, this form of “strict scrutiny” essentially operates as a balancing test that requires judges to weigh the seriousness of the burden on religious exercise against the significance of the goal the state is trying to reach. If the goal is sufficiently important, the law will stand, regardless of the burden on religious exercise.

Both these questions—whether a law is generally applicable and whether the burdens of a ban outweigh its benefits—leave much to the discretion of individual judges….

You can read the whole essay here.

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