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High Court’s Religious Services Covid Ruling in Lower Courts Now

Dec. 2, 2020, 9:57 PM

Two federal judges in California and Oregon are being asked to apply a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in cases challenging state-wide coronavirus mitigation orders that limit how many people may gather indoors as the nation battles back a resurgent pandemic.

The high court’s 5-4 ruling last week blocked New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) from reimposing strict capacity limits on New York City’s houses of worship.

The restrictions the justices reviewed effectively prohibited individuals from attending religious services and “strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty,” the Supreme Court said.

Faith-based organizations have challenged coronavirus restrictions throughout the pandemic, and now two of them want the district court judges presiding over their cases to rule that the Supreme Court’s decision weighs in their favor.

The Golden State

Like the capacity limits at issue in the New York case reviewed by the Supreme Court, a lawsuit pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California is challenging California’s restrictions on indoor gatherings at houses of worship, as well as for political events.

Judge Lucy H. Koh Tuesday instructed the plaintiffs and the state to file briefs by the end of the month that address the impact the Supreme Court’s decision has on their case.

The Supreme Court’s Nov. 26 ruling only addressed whether the New York houses of worship were entitled to a preliminary injunction pending a full resolution of the claims. The plaintiffs there have shown they’re likely to succeed on the merits of their claims, but securing an injunction doesn’t mean the case is over.

The parties in the California case should also identify any other case pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court that challenge Covid restrictions and describe the procedural postures of those cases, Koh said.

Her order denied a joint request that each party file a five-page brief discussing the impact of the case by Dec. 7. She wants them to provide specific information not mentioned in that joint stipulation, and the government may file its brief by Dec. 11, a few days after the plaintiffs’ Dec. 7 deadline, according to her order.

Eimer Stahl LLP represent the plaintiffs. California’s Justice Department represents the state.

The Beaver State

In Oregon, Judge Michael W. Mosman will have to decide if the Supreme Court’s decision means he must reconsider whether two Christian schools are being unconstitutionally bound by statewide orders restricting the size of indoor gatherings.

Horizon Christian School and Life Christian School lost their initial bid for a preliminary injunction Nov. 17, according to the docket. They renewed their request last week, arguing that a new executive order unlawfully targets “faith institutions” like themselves for capacity limitations.

But the new order exempts all schools, public and private, from its 25-person capacity limits during the pandemic, the state responded Tuesday. A similar exemption for schools like Horizon and Life was also in the original challenged order, so the court should again deny the request for an injunction, the state said.

The schools filed their rebuttal the same day, saying the Supreme Court’s reasoning in is applicable to all religious organizations and institutions and arguing that private religious academies fit in that category.

Another private religious academy, Danville Christian School in Kentucky, is asking the Supreme Court to overturn the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and rule that an state order blocking all in-person K-12 classes until at least Dec. 7 violates its religious expression rights. The Kentucky Attorney General has joined Danville in opposing Gov. Andy Beshear’s (D) executive order.

The Supreme Court has asked Beshear to respond to the emergency petition by end end of the week.

John T. Kaempf in Portland, Ore., represents Horizon and Life. Oregon’s Justice Department represents the state.

The cases are Tandon v. Newsom, N.D. Cal., No. 20-cv-07108, 12/1/20 and Horizon Christian School v. Oregon, D. Or., No. 20-cv-01345, brief filed 12/1/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Porter Wells in Washington at pwells@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Nicholas Datlowe at ndatlowe@bloomberglaw.com

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