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Governor’s office: Mass. pandemic restrictions on churches ‘consistent’ with US Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court building. The Supreme Court issued a preliminary injunction late Wednesday against specific restrictions imposed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on religious services in New York.
The Supreme Court building. The Supreme Court issued a preliminary injunction late Wednesday against specific restrictions imposed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on religious services in New York.Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg

Pandemic restrictions on places of worship in Massachusetts won’t run afoul of a US Supreme Court ruling this week that barred certain capacity limits on religious gatherings in areas of New York where coronavirus infections were rising, according to legal scholars and Governor Charlie Baker’s office.

“The administration believes the Supreme Court decision is consistent with the way Massachusetts is working with our houses of worship during the pandemic,” Baker spokeswoman Sarah Finlaw said in an e-mail.

The Supreme Court issued a preliminary injunction late Wednesday against specific restrictions imposed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on religious services in New York. The vote was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s three liberal members in dissent. The order was the first in which the court’s newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, played a decisive role.

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The high court’s ruling targeted New York’s rules on the size of religious gatherings in the state’s so-called red and orange zones, which capped attendance at houses of worship at 10 and 25 people, respectively.

Rene Reyes, a constitutional law professor at Suffolk University Law School, said the Supreme Court’s decision is unlikely to undermine Massachusetts’ constraints on religious services, which are less restrictive than the numerical occupancy caps Cuomo imposed. But the court’s ruling could influence governors across the United States as they decide whether to put in place future pandemic restrictions.

“I think governors, those who are making and issuing these kinds of orders, are going to take [the ruling] into account and they’re going to try and make sure they do present and frame these kinds of restrictions in a way that seems, at a minimum, neutral toward religion and perhaps, even accommodating toward religion,” Reyes said.

Matthew Segal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, agreed.

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“I’m sure that public officials across the country are looking at that opinion and then looking at their own rules and attempting to make sure that they’re not doing anything that treats houses of worship more harshly than comparable nonreligious gatherings,” he said.

In March, Baker issued an emergency order temporarily shuttering all nonessential businesses and organizations to curb the rapid spread of coronavirus. Under the order, houses of worship were not required to close their physical premises, but any gatherings, including religious services, over 10 people were banned.

Houses of worship were included in the first phase of the governor’s reopening plan and were allowed to resume services on May 18 with masking and social-distancing mandates and a 40 percent cap on indoor capacity.

Under current guidelines in Massachusetts, houses of worship can operate at 50 percent of their occupancy limit. If no occupancy record exists, they can allow no more than 10 people per 1,000 square feet of space. Social distancing and mask-wearing — with some exceptions — are still required.

Attorney Michael DeGrandis, of the Washington, D.C.-based New Civil Liberties Alliance, said the high court’s ruling is unlikely to change Massachusetts’ occupancy restrictions on religious services. But he believes the majority’s analysis of Cuomo’s executive orders should give Baker pause.

DeGrandis represents plaintiffs — including several businesses and church pastors— in a lawsuit against Baker that argues the governor overreached this spring when he invoked the state’s Civil Defense Act, and ordered nonessential businesses to close and banned large gatherings.

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That case, Desrosiers v. Baker, is pending before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. DeGrandis said in an e-mail he expects the state’s highest court will “take note that the United States Supreme Court stated the obvious: ‘Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.’”

He also pointed to a concurring opinion by Justice Neil Gorsuch that argued that, as we “face the prospect of entering a second calendar year living in the pandemic’s shadow,” the time is over for deference to executive orders, even though they might have been necessary in the early uncertain days of the pandemic.

“The Massachusetts Legislature should enact whatever laws it deems necessary to keep the public safe, as long as such laws are consistent with the Massachusetts and United States Constitutions,” DeGrandis said. “But executive-made laws like Governor Baker’s COVID-19 orders are a direct assault on the separation of powers, and they must stop.”

Pastor James Montoro, of Pioneer Valley Baptist Church in Westfield, is one of several plaintiffs represented by DeGrandis in the lawsuit against Baker. Montoro said he is optimistic the state’s highest court will rule in the plaintiffs’ favor and roll back the governor’s orders.

“I really think [Baker] and all the other governors are replacing the family feel of church with fear and they’re replacing God with government, and I don’t think that’s their place,” Montoro said. “I think this decision by the Supreme Court backs that up.”

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Rabbi Chaim Prus, regional director of Chabad of Eastern Massachusetts, told the Globe he also supported the Supreme Court’s decision.

“All synagogues that I know of are following CDC and state guidelines to protect their members,” he said in an e-mail. “Adults should have the freedom of choice to use their own judgment concerning their personal safety.”

The Supreme Court’s decision seemed to signal that some governmental efforts to stem the pandemic had overreached, the New York Times reported.

The majority argued the restrictions singled out houses of worship for “especially harsh treatment” compared with secular facilities, and there were “many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services. Among other things, the maximum attendance at a religious service could be tied to the size of the church or synagogue.”

The decision differed from the court’s previous practice of deferring to local officials on pandemic-related restrictions, even in the area of constitutionally protected religious rights. The Supreme Court previously upheld pandemic-related occupancy restrictions on churches in California and Nevada, with Chief Justice Roberts aligning with the court’s liberal wing, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September.

On Thanksgiving, one world religious leader expressed support for pandemic restrictions. In an opinion piece published in the Times, Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, said, “With some exceptions, governments have made great efforts to put the well-being of their people first, acting decisively to protect health and to save lives. The exceptions have been some governments that shrugged off the painful evidence of mounting deaths, with inevitable, grievous consequences. But most governments acted responsibly, imposing strict measures to contain the outbreak.”

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The pope also criticized those who have balked at the restrictions, saying that “some groups protested, refusing to keep their distance, marching against travel restrictions — as if measures that governments must impose for the good of their people constitute some kind of political assault on autonomy or personal freedom!”

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan. Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.