Religion Unplugged

Justices flip the script on COVID-19 worship bans, but top health official urges closures

By Bobby Ross Jr. | Religion Unplugged

Editor’s note: Every Friday, “Weekend Plug-In” features analysis, fact checking and top headlines from the world of faith. Got feedback or ideas for this column? Email Bobby Ross Jr. at

First New York.

Now California.

With the addition of a fifth, solidly conservative member — new Justice Amy Coney Barrett — the U.S. Supreme Court has flipped the script on months of legal battles over pandemic-era worship gatherings.

“It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote last week as the 5-4 court blocked New York from imposing strict attendance limits on religious services.

Back in July, before Barrett replaced the late liberal icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court had rejected — by the same 5-4 margin — a challenge to restrictions on religious services in Nevada.

Related: Faith vs. COVID-19: Restrictions prompt clashes over churches reopening

Then on Thursday, the court “sided with a California church protesting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pandemic-related restrictions on indoor worship services,” notes the Washington Post’s Robert Barnes. The brief, unsigned order returns the issue to lower court judges and “suggests the state’s ban on indoor services is likely to fall,” reports the Los Angeles Times’ David G. Savage.

In San Francisco, Catholic Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has complained that the city’s “treatment of churches is discriminatory and violates the right to worship,” as the Catholic News Agency explains. For more details on the California battle, see Sacramento Bee writer Dale Kasler’s story this week on churches defying Newsom’s order.

In related news, the Deseret News’ Kelsey Dallas highlights a clash over in-person classes in religious schools in Kentucky. And’s Nik DeCosta-Klipa covers Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s concerns over “COVID-19 clusters stemming from religious gatherings.”

Here in my home state of Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate that might help slow the spread of COVID-19. But he declared Thursday a day of prayer and fasting over the coronavirus, as The Associated Press’ Ken Miller reports.

Read the full column.

This column appears in the online magazine Religion Unplugged.

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