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Conservative SCOTUS Protects Religious Institutions From Virus Rules

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The conservative majority in the Supreme Court held firm Tuesday in its protection of religious institutions from harsher coronavirus restrictions than those imposed on most commercial establishments.

The high court ruled in favor of houses of worship in Colorado and New Jersey that opposed capacity limits on their services, USA Today and NBC News reported.

The rulings follow recent similar actions that involved religious institutions in New York and California.

In the Colorado case, the court ruled 6-3 to send the lawsuit, brought by High Plains Harvest Church, back to the lower courts, where the church had lost, NBC News reported.

The 150-seat church sued in May, arguing Colorado Gov. Jared Polis' order capping attendance to 50 people was too restrictive. The high court said lower court judges should review the case in light of its ruling in a similar case involving New York last month.

In a second ruling Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling limiting New Jersey's application of COVID-19 restrictions that apply to religious settings, granting an injunction sought by two religious institutions — a church in North Caldwell and a synagogue in Lakewood, NBC News reported.

The church and synagogue asked for an injunction allowing them “to host indoor, in-person religious worship for their respective congregations on the same terms and conditions allowed for comparable secular activities; that is, either the 100% of capacity afforded 'essential' non-retail businesses or, alternatively, the 50% of capacity allowed for 'essential' retail businesses, with the same health and safety protocols and exemptions applicable to comparable secular activities,” the news outlet reported.

New Jersey limits houses of worship to 25% capacity or 150 people. The policy was challenged by a priest and a rabbi who argued their small congregations are penalized more than necessary.

"Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten," the court's conservative majority opinion said regarding the New York case in November, USA Today noted. "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."

The court had rejected challenges to similar measures in California and Nevada earlier this year — before the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the addition of the conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the bench.

In remarks to the conservative Federalist Society last month before the New York ruling, Justice Samuel Alito said the restrictions in Nevada and California had "blatantly discriminated against houses of worship," warning that "religious liberty is in danger of becoming a second-class right."