Imagine an organization that welcomes children in the name of Jesus, seeks above all to bring them to faith, and bathes every aspect of its activities with religious dimensions. Yet it is characterized by the government as not “religious” enough to qualify for religious exemption from state unemployment coverage. That’s what happened to By The Hand Club For Kids, a ministry controlled by The Moody Church in Chicago, when it objected to the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s (IDES) characterization of its religiously-infused afterschool program as merely “secular.”
Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo and Its Rippling Effect: The Supreme Court Stands Up For Religious Expression
On Thanksgiving Eve 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and its co-Plaintiff, Agudath Israel of America, something for which to be thankful. The Court granted temporary injunctive relief to these religious organizations, refusing to uphold a New York State Executive Order that imposed attendance restrictions on religious services. In Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, the Court rejected the constitutionality of New York’s Order limiting attendance at religious services in COVID-related “red zones” within the State to no more than ten persons and, in “orange zones,” to no more than twenty-five people. A full evidentiary hearing is scheduled for later this month. Additionally, the Supreme Court just recently issued an Order casting doubt on California’s current wholesale ban on in-person religious gatherings. These significant religious liberty victories illustrate a possible Court shift as well as the judiciary’s ongoing struggle with the principles of religious freedom, against the backdrop of pandemic-related executive orders.
When does a government restriction burden congregants’ religious liberty too much, therefore becoming illegal and unenforceable under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)? On October 9, 2020, a D.C. federal trial court granted injunctive relief to a church against the D.C. Mayor, in Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser (Case No. 20-cv-02710). According to this important ruling, government restrictions on in-person gatherings should fail if unevenly enforced against houses of worship acting responsibly and in accordance with their sincerely held doctrinal beliefs.