Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on the ongoing debate over restrictions that effectively prohibited in-person gatherings at houses of worship.
In a decision this week, however, Justice Neil Gorsuch refused to take on a case involving COVID-19 restrictions on two Colorado churches. His unsigned order included no reason for his refusal.
“Remains a future threat”
The churches petitioned the court last month to dismiss the Colorado Disaster Emergency Act because it threatened to unfairly target churches. By that time, though, most restrictions had been lifted across the state and were no longer in effect.
An earlier federal court ruling forced Colorado to give churches the same exemptions as secular organizations, including relief from mask mandates when they interfere with “essential” functions.
That decision also removed capacity restrictions deemed stricter than those placed on secular groups.
It was subsequently appealed by the state, but that effort was dismissed when Colorado began to lift existing mandates and restrictions earlier this year.
Nevertheless, the churches involved in the case argued that the CDEA “remains a future threat” to religious liberty by presenting the potential to discriminate against religious institutions.
For his part, Gorsuch appears to have agreed with Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ position that striking down the entire law would make it more difficult for the state to respond to disasters and other emergencies in the future.
The lower court’s ruling removed any discrimination as it applies to the current public health crisis by transforming mandates into “strong recommendations” and ensuring parity between churches and businesses. It was also consistent with previous Supreme Court rulings that found churches could face restrictions but not more than secular organizations.
Gorsuch’s decision not to hear the Colorado case seems to be the latest example of the Supreme Court limiting its scope to claims of actual harm or threat, opting not to deal with the potential of future damages.
In fact, the nation’s highest court has rejected several election-related cases on the argument that alleged violations could not be clearly demonstrated to have impacted the outcome of November’s election.
The court generally accepts just over 100 cases annually out of more than 7,000 typically submitted for review, so it might not be surprising that it would not spend time hearing a case that has largely resolved itself amid a steadily declining COVID-19 infection rate.