Judge William Young of the District of Massachusetts on Wednesday ruled in favor of upholding Gov. Charles Baker’s executive orders that set COVID-19 restrictions in place as constitutional after an individual claimed that the orders infringed on his First Amendment rights.
A resident of Peabody, Mass., Vincent Delaney filed a complaint June 18, 2020, against Baker, claiming his executive orders were unconstitutional. Baker had declared a state of emergency for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on March 10, 2020, under which the state remains today, and issued related executive orders pertaining to capacity limits, face coverings, and social distancing. Delaney’s argument centers these orders as applied to his place of worship, a Catholic church in the Archdiocese of Boston, where he is required to wear a mask and maintain a 6 feet between himself and others and may be subject to a denial of entry if the capacity was at its limit upon his arrival.
After Delaney’s complaint and subsequent preliminary injunction, a motion to dismiss by Baker, a joint finding session, and a hearing, only one count of the initial allegations, Delaney’s First Amendment challenges, remains at issue in this court.
For Delaney’s challenges to have legal standing, his injury must be “concrete, particularized, and actual or imminent”; “traceable,” or able to show a causal relationship between the alleged action and the injury; and “redressable” in that “a favorable ruling will at least lessen the injury,” the court explained. The court found that the injury in question only would exist if Delaney ever was denied entry to his church because of the capacity regulations, of which the joint finding never found evidence, so “his allegations amount to a ‘generalized grievance about the conduct of the government.’ ” His claims also were not found to be redressable, as his Archdiocese’s protocols for social distancing and mask wearing inside its churches cannot be proved to have been implemented “only because of Governor Baker’s orders.”
Regarding the challenge against the governor’s mask mandate — first issued May 1, 2020 — on a broader scale outside of Delaney’s parish, the court found that Delaney does have standing, as “the direct-causation injury does not suffer the same infirmities.”
The two parties dispute the legal standard regarding this particular challenge: Baker argues Jacobson v. Massachusetts should apply, but Delaney argues for application of the “tiers of scrutiny” and that Jacobson’s standard is improper, “particularly when applied to First Amendment challenges.”
“In Jacobson, the Supreme Court upheld a Massachusetts statute granting municipal boards of health the authority to mandate vaccination and revaccination,” the court explained.
Despite opposers of Jacobson’s application who say that “any exigency that once existed has since expired because of the many months that have passed” since the pandemic began raging, the court argued that exigency is a “fact-intensive notion” and points to the 501 residents in Massachusetts in the past week, since this ruling, who have died because of COVID-19.
“There certainly will be a day in the hopefully near future when this crisis’s exigency expires in Massachusetts, but it is not today,” the judge stated.
Concerning Delaney’s argument that the tiers of scrutiny should apply instead of Jacobson, the court found that the challenge still would fail, as “Governor Baker’s mask mandate in public places is ‘neutral and of general applicability’ ” and “mandating all residents to wear a mask burdens the conduct of all residents, not exclusively conduct motivated by religious belief.”
The court sided with Jacobson here and thus upheld the governor’s executive orders as constitutional because, for Jacobson to fail to apply, the state action would have to be a “plain, palpable invasion of rights secured by the fundamental law” or one that lacks a “real or substantial relation to the protection of the public health.” The judge found no such evidence of these criteria, as, according to the joint findings, “the wearing of masks can slow the transmission of the spread of the coronavirus,” so Baker’s mask mandate indeed does indeed have a “real or substantial relation” to public health concerns.
The plaintiff was represented by the Law Office of Thomas O. Mason.