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Sabbath Worship Case Goes to SCOTUS

Sabbath Worship Case Goes to SCOTUS

Eight months into the COVID-19 crisis, the question of the right to the free exercise of religion is headed, again, to the nation’s highest court. Orthodox Jewish and Roman Catholic organizations have petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States to block restrictions on their worship gatherings imposed by the State of New York and Governor Andrew Cuomo.

According to the Times Herald-Record newspaper in Middletown, New York, “Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella organization representing affiliated Orthodox Jewish congregations across the nation, and two Orthodox congregations in New York City filed an emergency application on [Nov. 16]. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Brooklyn filed its application on [Nov. 12]. Both argue that Gov Andrew Cuomo’s Oct. 6 executive order restricting attendance for houses of worship is an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of worship.” 

The governor’s executive order is his “cluster action initiative,” which focuses on areas in the state with “a high density of cases,” placing various restrictions on not only houses of worship but also businesses, dining establishments, and schools. The initiative also increases the fine for violating mass gathering prohibitions to $15,000.

The newspaper report goes on to state, “Agudath also argues that Cuomo targeted Orthodox Jews, and that the restrictions are especially onerous as they cannot drive on the Sabbath to worship in synagogues without the strict attendance limits.”

Letitia James, the state’s attorney general, responded in a filing, asserting, “Cuomo’s measure targeted not religion, but situations conducive to the virus spreading, ‘namely those in which persons tend to gather closely for an extended period of time.’”

No Pandemic Exemption?

Critics of these COVID-19 restrictions, imposed throughout the United States, point to discrepancies. Why have many organized protests been permitted, along with select indoor events, such as the funerals for George Floyd and late U.S. Congressman and civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis? While the latter appeared to have strictly followed social distancing restrictions, the former was more lenient. As for the protests, they are ongoing across the nation.

Religious organizations appeal to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says that Congress (and, by extension, the states) “shall make no law” against the “free exercise” of religion. They argue that this amendment, the first in the Bill of Rights, contains no exemption for pandemics or other crises. According to this stance, it does not matter if places of worship are given more liberty to hold gatherings in comparison to other groups (in the state of New York, for example, churches are still allowed to meet in a limited capacity, while “concerts are prohibited entirely”); the very fact that there are any restrictions at all on matters of worship presents an issue.

For government officials such as Cuomo and James, it’s the nature of the event, whether religious or not, that causes problems. The newspaper added, “The larger the gathering, the more likely it is that someone there has COVID-19; and the longer the gathering lasts, the more likely it is that they will transmit the virus to others, James argued.”

As the matter is weighed by the Supreme Court—which has previously ruled against those seeking to gather for worship—there is one difference. A new associate justice, Amy Coney Barrett, who comes from a committed faith background, is expected to vote for free exercise. However, nothing in Barrett’s confirmation hearings pointed towards this, since nominees are generally reluctant to specify how they might decide a potential or hypothetical case.

Continuing Worship Wars

If the majority of this past year is any indication, it’s fair to imagine that battles over the right to worship won’t cease anytime soon. In fact, the Bible prophesies that worship will become more and more of a central issue and ultimately will ring in the end of the world. According to the Bible, at the end of time, the legalities surrounding worship will not be centered on physical distance or masks or limited attendance—but on the day of worship. (See Daniel 7:25 and Revelation 13:16–18.)

Does it seem unlikely that a state power will use coercion to enforce a certain day to worship God? Perhaps it might have eight months ago. At the beginning of this year, could you have imagined going to court over the number of people allowed in a church sanctuary?

Scripture foretells that an end-time power, symbolized as a beast in the book of Revelation, will “cause as many as [will] not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (v. 15). This means that a death penalty will go into effect over matters of faith.

God only knows what role these current cases play in ushering in the final events between church and state. How the courts, particularly the Supreme Court, handle these cases going forward will likely determine what states and local governments do. What precedent might they set for the end times?

When that time comes, when liberty of conscience is attacked from all angles, Scripture also forewarns that “all the world [will have] marveled and followed the beast” (v. 3). At that point, appeals to the courts will be of no consequence. What will matter—indeed, what does matter today—is your relationship with God.

Read our article on the “Separation of Church and State.” Learn what the ideal relationship between God and government should be, and what happens when the wall of separation is breeched. For a more complete discussion of what lies ahead, check out “The Sabbath and the Mark of the Beast,” our free Bible study that will answer your questions on the beast, the law, the day of worship, and more!

This article contributed by Mark A. Kellner
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