The U.S. Supreme Court sided with a rural Colorado church on Tuesday that challenged COVID-19 restrictions from Gov. Jared Polis limiting gatherings for religious services — the third time in less than three weeks the high court has made such a move.
In an unsigned order, the Supreme Court sent the case of High Plains Harvest Church vs. Polis back to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which had earlier sided with the governor.
The order included instructions for the appellate court to reconsider its decision in light of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in November against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in which it overturned mandatory occupancy limits on religious services in New York state aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who joined the high court in November, was a decisive vote in that case.
Tuesday’s order resembled another decision from the high court two weeks ago in which justices granted a petition from a church in Pasadena, Calif., that sought to set aside a lower court ruling that affirmed capacity limits set by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
In that case, the high court similarly instructed the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to reconsider its opinion in the wake of the New York decision.
Liberal justices Elana Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented in Tuesday’s order, arguing that the case is now moot because Polis already lifted the restriction caps after the high court’s New York ruling.
They made the same arguments in the New York decision — Cuomo had already removed the restrictions. But in both cases, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ordered that the cases continue.
Polis’ order in June allowed churches to open at either 50% capacity or 50 people in the worship space, whichever is fewer. Last week, the state issued an amended order classifying houses of worship as “critical businesses” that are exempt from capacity limits.
Churches have contended they are being unfairly singled out by operating restrictions that treat religious and retail businesses differently. Health experts have said crowded, indoor church services provide an especially potent avenue for transmission of the disease, which is spread through the emission of infected droplets.
Several outbreaks nationwide have been traced to church services. This month, for example, San Diego County health officials said outbreaks at three Awaken Church locations resulted in at least 64 cases.
Citing the New York ruling, the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Washington, D.C., on Monday sued the city over COVID-19 restrictions that will limit attendees at Christmas services.
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