Supreme Court Orders New Review of New Jersey Church Capacity Caps


The U.S. Supreme Court ordered new scrutiny of New Jersey’s capacity limits for churches and synagogues during the Covid-19 surge, telling a lower court to take a second look after the justices blocked much stricter caps in New York as violating religious rights.

The one-paragraph order Tuesday underscores the potential impact of the court’s Nov. 25 order in the New York case. That 5-4 decision blocked the state from reimposing limits that might have capped attendance at 10 people in coronavirus hotspots in Brooklyn and Queens.

The New Jersey rules are less strict, limiting houses of worship to the larger of 10 people or 25% of capacity, with an absolute cap of 150 people. Like other states, New Jersey is experiencing a resurgence of Covid-19 infections, with more than 4,000 new cases daily.

The Supreme Court has become more skeptical of Covid-driven restrictions on houses of worship since Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to succeed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in October.

Earlier Tuesday, the Supreme Court set aside a ruling that had backed capacity limits on houses of worship in Colorado during the pandemic. Three dissenting justices objected that the state had already lifted those rules, which capped attendance at 50 people for many churches and synagogues.

The New Jersey order, which came without public dissent, is similar to an action the high court took Dec. 3, when it told a federal trial judge to reconsider arguments that California is infringing religious rights by banning indoor worship services in most of the state.

Priest and Rabbi

Two lower courts backed New Jersey’s restrictions, issued by Democratic Governor Philip Murphy.

The rules are being challenged by Kevin Robinson, a priest at Saint Anthony of Padua Church in North Caldwell, and Yisrael A. Knopfler, a rabbi at Congregation Premishlan in Lakewood. They say the state is giving preferential treatment to retail stores, which if deemed essential can have as much as 50% capacity.

The state says medical experts see retail stores as less risky than houses of worship because people generally aren’t in close proximity to others for long periods of time. New Jersey says its capacity rules for churches and synagogues are either the same as or more generous than restrictions on other indoor public venues where people remain for extended periods.

The challengers are also seeking to invalidate New Jersey’s mask requirement, which applies to all indoor places open to the public, including houses of worship. The opponents contend the rules are so riddled with exceptions, including one for eating and drinking, that they don’t accomplish their purpose.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the New York case said that state’s rules discriminated against houses of worship because neighboring stores and businesses were allowed to admit more people. The rules had already been lifted but might have been reimposed.

The New Jersey case is Robinson v. Murphy, 20A95. The Colorado case is High Plains Harvest Church v. Polis, 20A105.

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