Court dismisses suit over COVID-19 restrictions
Hagadone News Network | January 9, 2021 1:00 AM
SANDPOINT — A federal judge is dismissing a lawsuit which argued Idaho's former restrictions on religious gatherings in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus are unconstitutional.
Chief U.S. District Court Judge David C. Nye ruled the lawsuit filed by two Bonner County residents and a Grangeville pastor is moot because the restrictions on gatherings were lifted and unlikely to be reimposed, according to a written ruling issued on Thursday.
Nye held that there may come a day when the pandemic or other dire situation could cause severe restrictions of constitutional and legal rights.
"That could be a grave day for liberty. But those are situations for future days and future cases," said Nye, who placed emphasis on the word "could" in the 15-page written ruling.
Sagle resident Scott Herndon, Laclede Rev. Josh Jones and Grangeville Rev. Michael Gulotta filed suit in federal court last year, arguing that the state's restrictions on gatherings violated rights guaranteed by the First, Fifth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Although the restriction on religious gatherings was lifted during the litigation, the plaintiffs maintained the threat of them being reimposed would continue to cause irreparable harm and undue hardship, according to court documents.
Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen first issued a stay-home order in March of last year. The order also restricted non-essential travel. Religious gatherings and interstate travel for religious purposes were not among the list of approved "essential" activities, rendering them expressly prohibited.
Shortly afterward, Gov. Brad Little said clergy and church members could produce and stream church services or attend drive-in church services. Jeppesen issued a Stay Healthy order on May 1, 2020, which cautioned Idahoans to avoid gatherings, but lifted restrictions on them. The order explicitly allowed in-person religious services as long as physical distancing and sanitation guidelines were met.
Counsel for Herndon and the two pastors coincidentally filed suit the same day Jeppesen lifted the restriction on in-person religious services, court records show. The plaintiffs later amended their complaint to allege that the threat of reimposition of the restrictions at any time caused an ongoing undue hardship.
But with no restrictions in place on gatherings or travel, Nye ruled that the court could not delve into the case's substantive issues.
"As much as the court would relish the opportunity to address the issues of religious freedom, free speech, assembly, travel, and the other matters presented in this case, the court is constrained from doing so by the doctrine of mootness," Nye wrote.
Nye noted that the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held in 1997 that speculative contingencies are insufficient to sustain an otherwise moot controversy. Moreover, Nye ruled that speculation that the restrictions will be reimposed was compellingly contradicted by the state's response to the virus over the past six months.
Even though coronavirus positivity rates and deaths climbed in Idaho, restrictions on religious gatherings did not reemerge.
"Thus, the circumstances in this case show that the governor and director are not reasonably likely to revert to significantly restricting religious worship and travel in the imminent future," Nye said in the ruling.
However, Nye if the restrictions did reappear, the plaintiffs would be within their rights to quickly file another suit. Nye dismissed the case without prejudice, which means their claims could be revived in a subsequent legal action.
Keith Kinnaird can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @KeithDailyBee