SUBMITTED | JULY 9, 2020
Q: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, churches and church members have been banned far too long from practicing their religious beliefs. I had to cancel my wedding. I had to cancel my daughter’s baptism. It was of great importance to my family since we were naming her after my 95-year-old grandmother. A day to honor my grandmother and bless my child. We no longer have the right to do this in New York City. The mayor has given the privilege to violent protestors and criminals over the lawful citizen and has openly told us we don’t have the right to complain. I would like to know if I have a case to file a suit against the mayor’s office and the City of New York.
A: Unfortunately, we cannot provide you with specific legal advice through this hotline. However, we can state that, in general, though the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees American citizens the right to freely exercise their religion, individual liberty is not absolute. As the Supreme Court has recognized, individual liberties can sometimes be restricted in the interest of public health. As an example, in Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 29 (1905), the Supreme Court upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws, even though the law infringed on the individual liberty of citizens who did not want to receive a smallpox vaccine. As the Court stated, “the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”
As a result, we cannot state for certain whether New York City’s public health restriction on gatherings is, on its face, an unconstitutional violation of citizens’ rights to exercise their religion or a permissible temporary restriction on individual liberties during a period of great danger to the public health.
Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation. No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.