During the COVID-19 pandemic, officials in the United States at all levels of government utilized their legal authorities to impose a wide range of measures designed to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2; the causative agent of COVID-19), including shutting down businesses, limiting the size of gatherings, requiring masking, and mandating vaccination.
These orders and regulations were challenged in court cases that resulted in more than 1000 judicial decisions. Common claims were based on alleged procedural and substantive due process violations, violations of religious liberty, and violations of officials’ scope of authority. In more than three fourths of the decisions, the court refused to grant the plaintiffs the relief sought. However, plaintiffs found success in several notable cases, especially in federal court.
These recent decisions, as well as broader prepandemic trends, have important implications for public health officials’ exercise of their public health powers, especially when those exercises implicate religious liberty. In this legal environment, officials may need to rely more on the powers of persuasion than on their legal authority alone.