COVID-19 Becket Cases

Religious Liberty and the COVID pandemic

Tandon v. Newsom 

Even after a series of stinging defeats at the Supreme Court, California and Santa Clara County continued to try to restrict in-person religious worship. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Tandon v. Newsom, a case in which Pastor Wong and other Christians are seeking emergency relief at the Supreme Court from restrictions on “social gatherings” that prevent them from holding Bible studies, prayer meetings, or worship services in their homes. In the brief, Becket argued that suppressing worship in one’s home is a true emergency, and that the Court’s intervention is necessary because, even if the restrictions are soon withdrawn, California and the County could quickly reimpose the same or similar discriminatory restrictions without advance notice. The court agreed with Becket’s friend-of-the-court brief, ruling that California’s COVID-19 restrictions discriminated against religious conduct when compared to secular conduct posing a similar risk and violated Californians’ religious liberty.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington v. Bowser

Becket represented the Archdiocese of Washington in its lawsuit against Mayor Muriel Bowser. Despite the Archdiocese’s efforts to cooperate with the District to ensure that religious worship is available to all, Mayor Bowser had imposed new COVID-19 restrictions on houses of worship just before Advent. Her November 23rd order subjected houses of worship to an arbitrary 50-person attendance cap regardless of capacity even though the Archdiocese has held thousands of Masses since June without a single known COVID outbreak. The Archdiocese sought to open up churches to more than 50 worshippers in time for Christmas. On December 16, 2020, in response to the lawsuit, Mayor Bowser signed an updated order raising the cap to 250 persons, allowing the Archdiocese’s churches the chance to welcome many more of their parishioners on Christmas Day. On March 25, 2021, a federal judge issued an order lifting D.C.’s arbitrary caps, allowing the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic Church in the United States, to open its doors to as many people as it could safely host – just in time for Easter.

Gateway City Church v. Newsom

Santa Clara County ordered all churches to remain closed during Lent and Easter, contrary to the United States Supreme Court’s order in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom (“South Bay II”). On February 5, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that enjoined California’s total ban on indoor worship. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, California complied, amending its orders to allow indoor worship at 25% of capacity. But one California county, Santa Clara County, then issued its own county-specific worship ban, thumbing its nose at the Supreme Court’s ruling. After a group of churches sued, the case went to the United States Supreme Court. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San José at the Supreme Court on February 24, 2021. Becket’s brief asked the Court to stop the County’s flouting of the Court’s earlier rulings in Diocese of Brooklyn and South Bay II and allow Catholic churches in Santa Clara County to reopen during this holy season. On February 27, 2021, the Supreme Court ruled against Santa Clara County, forcing the county to drop its worship ban.

Capitol Hill Baptist v. Bowser

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Capitol Hill Baptist v. Bowsera lawsuit against Washington, D.C.’s policy of restricting socially-distanced and masked outdoor worship services to one hundred people while letting other, larger open-air gatherings continue. Becket’s brief explained that a 100 person limit on outdoor religious gatherings was one of the strictest in the country – and that 42 states had no cap on outdoor worship at all. On October 9, 2020, a federal district court ruled in the church’s favor, allowing it to hold outdoor, masked, social-distanced worship services.

Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom, which challenged California’s order to cease all indoor worship services due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. California’s rules, the most extreme in the nation, violated the Supreme Court’s recent precedent in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo and unfairly discriminated against houses of worship, which found their doors closed to the faithful even as non-essential businesses were permitted to open to hundreds of shoppers. The Supreme Court struck down California’s discriminatory indoor worship ban on February 5, 2021, forcing California again to permit indoor worship.

A midnight order from the Supreme Court

Becket represented Agudath Israel of America – an Orthodox Jewish advocacy organization – in its defense of New York synagogues that were targeted by New York Governor Cuomo’s lockdown orders in Agudath Israel of America v. Cuomo. Becket and co-counsel Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP asked the Supreme Court to stop Cuomo’s discriminatory lockdown restrictions while the case was being argued in lower courts. On November 25, the Supreme Court granted an injunction and prohibited enforcement of the unfair restrictions, holding that the restrictions unconstitutionally prioritized secular behavior over religious exercise. On December 28, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled 3-0 in favor of Agudath Israel, halting Governor Cuomo’s 10- and 25-person caps on religious worship while the case was pending. 

Protecting the fundamental right of religious education

Becket, together with the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, currently represents the Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam school – an Orthodox Jewish school for girls – in its case against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who singled out the Orthodox Jewish community in New York for draconian lockdown measures. Despite acknowledging that schools were not COVID-19 superspreaders, Governor Cuomo issued an executive order shutting down the school, preventing Jewish parents from exercising their rights to provide their children with a religious education. Shortly after Becket filed suit, Cuomo reversed his unscientific policy and allowed Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam and other schools in its Far Rockaway neighborhood to open.

Danville Christian Academy v. Beshear

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Danville Christian Academy v. Besheara case concerning Kentucky’s restrictions on private religious schools. The state ordered the doors on all K-12 schools shut, but allowed secular institutions like movie theaters, offices, and even gambling venues like racetracks to continue operating at reduced capacity. Becket’s brief points out that the right of parents to provide their children with a religious education is protected by the First Amendment, and that this right is fundamental to ensuring that religious groups can teach and transmit their faith effectively.

Minnesota churches challenge COVID-19 executive order

Becket stepped in to defend the Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Minnesota when Governor Tim Walz issued an unjust order, subordinating religion to the economic interests of the State. Thankfully, when the religious communities stood up for their rights, Governor Walz changed his order, reducing limitations on religious exercise. 

Wisconsin church reopening

Becket also defended the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison. When Madison/Dane County abruptly changed its reopening order to uniquely disadvantage religion, Becket sent a letter to County Executive Joe Parisi and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway warning them that continuing this discriminatory treatment of in-person worship violated federal and state law. Madison/Dane County too recognized its error and amended its order to return houses of worship to equal footing with secular services.