U.S. SUPREME COURT RULES
ON FIRST AMENDMENT
On yesterday, November 25, 2020, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision regarding the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This could possibly indicate the court's attitude toward the Episcopal Church's petition for the court to consider the appeal of the Ft. Worth case. In the Ft. Worth case, the Texas Supreme Court declared that, even though the Episcopal Church is hierarchical, neutral applications of state laws must leave the secessionist faction with the legal entities and rights of the Episcopal diocese. The breakaway faction says neutral principles gives them the rights to the old diocese. In other words, state law trumps church law. In contrast, the Episcopal Church says the First Amendment precludes civil courts from interfering with internal church affairs. Thus, one side argues state law and other argues the First Amendment.
Find yesterday's Supreme Court decision here .
Find a CNN article about the decision here .
As background, Governor Cuomo, of New York, had place restrictions on numbers of people allowed in public gatherings, including religious ones, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Two groups sued over this, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel, a Jewish entity. They argued that the restrictions violated the First Amendment that guarantees freedom of religion.
The court ruled 5-4 in favor of the plaintiffs, the religious groups. This was the first time the court ruled against such restrictions during the pandemic of this year. As a sign of the importance of the issue at stake, the court took the unusual step of presenting six opinions. To support the majority opinion, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh presented their own explanations. Gorsuch (who attends an Episcopal church) wrote, "Government is not free to disregard the First Amendment in times of crisis." Kavanaugh, a Roman Catholic, wrote that the government actions violated the First Amendment.
The four justices in the minority were led by Chief Justice Roberts. They contributed three separate opinions. In general they agreed that the government had the right to impose restrictions as long as they were not discriminatory against churches and that the government had the greater responsibility to protect the welfare of the citizenry. Yet, they too unanimously defended the First Amendment. Justices Sotomayor and Kagan wrote, "Free religious exercise is one of our most treasured and jealously guarded constitutional rights. States may not discriminate against religious institutions, even when faced with a crisis as deadly as this one."
All nine justices arose to defend the First Amendment. The difference of opinion between the majority and the minority was whether the state had discriminated against religious institutions. The majority said yes. The minority said no.
The Episcopal Church case will depend on whether the U.S. Supreme Court justices see the Texas Supreme Court decision as a matter of state law or of the First Amendment. The whole argument from the Episcopal Church is violation of the First Amendment, that is, the state unconstitutionally intruded into the affairs of a religious entity. Specifically, the Church lawyers argued in their recent brief to SCOTUS that the 1979 Jones decision had produced vastly different outcomes because it lacked sufficient protection for religious institutions. The lawyers called on the court to redefine Jones.
Yesterday's decision from SCOTUS tells us the court is overwhelmingly concerned about protecting the First Amendment. All nine justices were adamant about this. If this concern carries over to the Episcopal Church case from Texas, it could mean a favorable tilt to the Episcopal Church side.
First, the Supreme Court has to grant, or deny, "cert." The Episcopal Church is asking for cert. If they deny cert, the matter is over and the Texas Supreme Court decision stands. The breakaway faction will be left as the legal heir of the pre-schism diocese. If SCOTUS grants cert, they will review the Texas SC decision, hold a hearing, and render a decision either upholding or overturning the Texas SC decision. If they do grant cert, we could expect a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court by next summer. If they do grant cert, it will mean the justices see the Texas case as one of the First Amendment and could well foreshadow a ruling favorable to the Episcopal Church.
As of now, it looks as if chances are slightly better for the court to grant cert. It is still a long shot, but less so today than yesterday.