As social distancing mandates remain in effect across the country due to the COVID-19 outbreak, large gatherings are largely prohibited. And while many trial courts have continued cases, appellate courts continue to issue decisions. Accordingly, some First Amendment issues remain in the news. Here are a couple of recent headlines:
Despite restrictions in every state, church congregations throughout the country continue to meet (or attempt to meet) for worship. Accordingly, law enforcement agencies are beginning to take action. Most notably, Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of the River church in Tampa Bay, was arrested when he refused to cease his church’s Sunday services. Another pastor, Jonathan Shuttlesworth of Revival Today ministry, has announced plans for an outdoor “drive-in” Easter service which he compared to the Woodstock music festival. The Center for American Liberty, a legal nonprofit, has threatened litigation if authorities restrict the service. Experts note that First Amendment litigation will likely begin to arise as in-person church services continue to be disallowed.
The Supreme Court announced that it will not take up an appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. The case emanated out of a lawsuit brought by the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington after its request to place a Christmas advertisement on Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority buses was denied. The poster depicted three shepherds under a bright star with the phrase, “Find the Perfect Gift.” Metro denied the diocese’s request citing its own policy disallowing religious or political advertising prompting the Diocese’s complaint. The trial court and DC Circuit both ruled for Metro noting that the Diocese’s position “would effectively prevent the limitation of a non-public forum to commercial advertising….” In denying the cert petition, the Court stated that, because the full Court couldn’t hear the case (Justice Kavanaugh disqualified himself from considering the case as he heard oral arguments in the DC circuit hearing), the case made “a poor candidate for our review.”