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Edicts: Crossing line during pandemic

The OBSERVER’s View

Local and state officials reveling in their power to enforce dictates they claim are needed to battle the coronavirus pandemic may well have felt a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld their authority.

In a way, it did. But look more closely at the ruling:

It came in an emergency appeal filed by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church, near San Diego, Calif. Church leaders had objected to limits on the number of people attending services. A statewide order had limited houses of worship to no more than 100 worshippers at a time, or 25% of a particular church’s capacity.

In its decision, issued on Friday, the Supreme Court ruled the California limit is not unconstitutional. The restriction, in the name of limiting the spread of COVID-19, is within the state’s authority.

But the ruling came as a result of a 5-4 vote by high court justices. Chief Justice John Roberts voted with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who often are referred to as leaning toward liberal positions.

In voting in favor of the state, however, the four other justices did not formally subscribe to Roberts’ written opinion. That reflects some concern about his position that, in general, the Constitution “principally entrusts” public health decisions to government officials.

Remember, too, that four justices did not agree with the state’s action.

It is obvious, then, that the court’s decision was not the full-throated endorsement of local and state officials’ power in telling Americans what we can and cannot do. It was far from a ringing endorsement — and those in government who were hoping for unqualified support of their emergency powers should take note.

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