The Coronavirus Pandemic and Religious Freedom: Judicial Decisions in the United States and United Kingdom

(2021) 26(4) Judicial Review 297

24 Pages Posted: 19 Apr 2022 Last revised: 24 Jun 2023

See all articles by Guy Baldwin

Guy Baldwin

Department of Law, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester

Date Written: April 13, 2022

Abstract

Restrictions imposed by governments in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 have presented a human rights challenge around the world. The difficulty of balancing public health against human rights has been particularly acute in relation to freedom of religion, as measures limiting attendance at places of worship or requiring their temporary closure have been challenged in the courts. This article analyses judicial decisions in the US and UK that have considered the lawfulness of restrictions on places of worship. Although the legal approaches to assessing violations of freedom of religion in the US and UK are different, both approaches have led to the similar result of courts taking issue with the imposition of certain public health restrictions on places of worship.

In the US, where the current, albeit controversial, understanding of the requirements of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment invites attention to the neutrality and general applicability of a law, the Supreme Court initially declined to grant injunctive relief against coronavirus restrictions on places of worship, before reversing course in Roman Catholic Diocese v Cuomo. In the UK, assessing the question under art 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998, the Outer House of the Court of Session in Philip found that Scottish coronavirus restrictions were not proportionate to their legitimate end. This article argues that these decisions exhibit a number of problems, and the preferable view is that restrictions on religious practice to save lives in a pandemic can be legally justified on a temporary basis.

Keywords: COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, coronavirus, freedom of religion, religious freedom, liberty of conscience, first amendment, free exercise clause, article 9, lukumi, smith, european convention on human rights, echr, ecthr, european court of human rights

Suggested Citation

Baldwin, Guy, The Coronavirus Pandemic and Religious Freedom: Judicial Decisions in the United States and United Kingdom (April 13, 2022). (2021) 26(4) Judicial Review 297 , Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4086041

Guy Baldwin (Contact Author)

Department of Law, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester ( email )

United Kingdom

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