Court Decision Provides Strong Protection For Life Tabernacle, Churches Everywhere

 The United States Supreme Court has issued an injunction prohibiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York from enforcing limits on attendance at churches and synagogues in New York.  The governor issued emergency orders creating zones and limiting church attendance to 10 or 25 persons depending on the zone.  However, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court enjoined him from limiting church attendance until lower federal courts consider the case, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Andrew M. Cuomo.

In the City of Central, Rev. Tony Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church, hailed the court decision as a great victory for Freedom of Religion and for his own legal challenge to the mandates of Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards.  

Shortly after issuing its ruling in the New York case, the Supreme Court declined to issue an injunction in Life Tabernacle’s case.  However, the pastor said a careful analysis of language of the ruling in the New York case showed it is entirely on his side, and the precedent will be used in court by his legal team to completely block any further action by the governor against him or his church.

“All the language in the New York case supports our position and none supports the illegal edicts against churches by John Bel Edwards,” Pastor Spell said.  “The governor can search the opinion from top to bottom and not find a word from the majority that supports his illegal and unconstitutional mandates.”

Rev. Spell said, “The court clearly reversed the decisions from earlier this year by the governor of California — Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak and South Bay Pentecostal Church v. Newsom.  Regarding South Bay, Associate Justice Neal Gorsuch said, ‘Courts must resume applying the Free Exercise Clause. Today, a majority of the Court makes this plain.’”

Rev. Spell said, “The Supreme Court also severely limited the future impact of the Jacobson case from 1905.”

Justice Gorsuch said, ‘Jacobson hardly supports cutting the Constitution loose during a pandemic. That decision involved an entirely different mode of analysis, an entirely different right, and an entirely different kind of restriction.’  Justice Gorsuch also said, ‘Nothing in Jacobson purported to address, let alone approve, such serious and long-lasting intrusions into settled constitutional rights.’”

The court issued the injunction in the New York case because Gov. Cuomo is currently imposing the 10- and 25-person limits in parts of New York.  Rev. Spell said that is completely different from the current situation in Louisiana.  Earlier this year, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards attempted to ban any and all religious services, and Rev. Spell was arrested simply for holding church services.  However, at present, the Louisiana governor’s edicts have a 75 percent occupancy limit on churches but no limits on the number of people in attendance, and no mask mandate for churches.  The argument for an injunction in Louisiana is much less than in New York, Rev. Spell said.

Rev. Spell said the New York decision is very protective of Life Tabernacle’s Freedom of Religion.  He cited some statements from the per curium opinion of the court:

• “…even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

• “At the hearing in the District Court, a health department official testified about a large store in Brooklyn that could ‘literally have hundreds of people shopping there on any given day.’ … Yet a nearby church or synagogue would be prohibited from allowing more than 10 or 25 people inside for a worship service..”

• “It is hard to believe that admitting more than 10 people to a 1,000–seat church or 400–seat synagogue would create a more serious health risk than the many other activities that the State allows.” “There can be no question that the challenged restrictions, if enforced, will cause irreparable harm. ‘The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.’  If only 10 people are admitted to each service, the great majority of those who wish to attend Mass on Sunday or services in a synagogue on Shabbat will be barred. And while those who are shut out may in some instances be able to watch services on television, such remote viewing is not the same as personal attendance. Catholics who watch a Mass at home cannot receive communion, and there are important religious traditions in the Orthodox Jewish faith that require personal attendance.”

• “It is clear that this matter is not moot. And injunctive relief is still called for because the applicants remain under a constant threat that the area in question will be reclassified as red or orange… The Governor regularly changes the classification of particular areas without prior notice.  If that occurs again, the reclassification will almost certainly bar individuals in the affected area from attending services before judicial relief can be obtained.”

In his concurring opinion, Associate Justice Gorsuch said,

• “Government is not free to disregard the First Amendment in times of crisis. At a minimum, that Amendment prohibits government officials from treating religious exercises worse than comparable secular activities, unless they are pursuing a compelling interest and using the least restrictive means available.”

Rev. Spell said the decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo will provide strong protection of religious liberty for years to come, not only in his own cases but for the entire nation.

Already, lower courts are recognizing the far-reaching impact of Roman Catholic Diocese. Last Thursday, California Superior Court Judge Gregory Pulskamp used the case to enjoin California Gov. Gavin Newsom from enforcing  his Blueprint for a Safer Economy.  This plan would have severely limited church attendance in California. Father Trevor Burfitt filed suit to stop the draconian plan.

The Father was represented by the Thomas More Society.  The society’s senior counsel, Crhis Ferrara said, “The Supreme Court’s decision in Brooklyn Diocese v. Cuomo has opened the way to the liberation of churches from the absurd and bigoted superstition that they are veritable death chambers threatening the entire population. Not even hair salons, which by the services offered necessitate close personal contact, have been subjected to the onerous and barefaced biases

 heaped upon houses of worship.”

The society’s attorney for Fr.  Burfitt, Paul Jonna, said discrimination continues against the priest. He said, “On Oct. 20, they sent county inspectors over to the church a few times and attempted to eject two women praying in a 500-capacity church — basically alone in the church — just for praying, worshiping God and [they] were threatened with citations for being inside the church. We think these orders have been unconstitutional from the beginning,” Jonna continued. Speaking more broadly, he said, “It’s clear that the executive branches of these Democrat-run states are using this as a massive power grab.”

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