Last week, after a ḥasidic funeral in Brooklyn—planned in coordination with municipal authorities—attracted a large number of attendees, New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio not only sent police to disperse the crowd, but announced he was doing so with a tweet addressed to the “Jewish community.” Since then, there has been evidence that the city’s police are enforcing social-distancing guidelines more rigorously in ḥasidic neighborhoods than elsewhere. Related to the ensuing controversy is a larger constitutional question: to what extent may state and local authorities restrict religious gatherings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus without violating the First Amendment. Michael A. Helfand writes:
Part of the problem is that the Supreme Court has never quite been clear on the outer boundaries of what counts as targeting religion. In its landmark 1990 decision, Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court explained that the prohibition required all laws to be both neutral and generally applied. This second requirement—general applicability—seemed to capture the notion that laws must be applied across the board to avoid targeting religion. One way to think about the requirement is that when a law has too many secular exceptions, but fails to make similar accommodations for religion, it helps unmask underlying discrimination.
While the lack of a religious exception might not prove intentional discrimination, the privileging of secular exceptions over religious exceptions might be seen as a form of implicit bias that is also constitutionally prohibited. This debate over how to view the requirement of generally applicability—does it prohibit overt discrimination or does it prohibit implicit bias as well—runs to the heart of many of the church lawsuits against stay-at-home orders.
If what the law cares about is intentional discrimination, states classifying houses of worship as nonessential—and thereby prohibiting them from holding worship services—are likely to overcome constitutional challenges. But if the law cares about how the doling out of limited exceptions suggests implicit bias, then stay-at-home orders may encounter judicial pushback.
Moreover, in a 2018 case the Supreme Court concluded that explicit statements of hostility toward a particular religion, or toward religion in general, on the part of officials or legislators can be used as evidence of a violation of neutrality. Therefore, writes Helfand:
One would think that any official concerned about the public-health [risks due to] COVID-19 would avoid making any statements that might be construed as evidencing religious discrimination. By choosing to do the exact opposite, de Blasio exposed any future enforcement actions he might take to legal scrutiny, undermining his ability to successfully achieve his purported objective of protecting the public’s health. In light of the law’s relative clarity when it comes to the constitutional demands of religious neutrality, de Blasio’s tweets become even more irresponsible.