Supreme Court allows California churches to hold indoor services at limited capacity

U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S., November 27, 2017.
U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S., November 27, 2017. | REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

After months of legal battles over Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19-related restrictions, churches in California can finally restart their indoor worship services, though only at 25% capacity, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday night.

“We are not scientists, but neither may we abandon the field when government officials with experts in tow seek to infringe a constitutionally protected liberty,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

“Even if a full congregation singing hymns is too risky, California does not explain why even a single masked cantor cannot lead worship behind a mask and a plexiglass shield,” Gorsuch added. “Or why even a lone muezzin may not sing the call to prayer from a remote location inside a mosque as worshippers file in.”

Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

“Under the Court’s injunction, the State must instead treat worship services like secular activities that pose a much lesser danger,” Kagan wrote. “That mandate defies our caselaw, exceeds our judicial role, and risks worsening the pandemic. In the worst public health crisis in a century, this foray into armchair epidemiology cannot end well.”

She added, “Given California’s mild climate, that restriction—the one the Court today lifts for houses of worship alone—does not amount to a ban on the activity.”

The ruling came in a case led by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in the San Diego area, noted Politico, which reported that the court released a similar order in a parallel suit filed by Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena. The churches argued that they should have the same freedom as shopping malls and retail businesses that are allowed to operate at 25% of their capacity.

Chief Justice John Roberts took a middle path and voted, along with Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, to lift the ban on indoor worship while retaining the restriction on singing, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“The applicants bore the burden of establishing their entitlement to relief from the singing ban. In my view, they did not carry that burden—at least not on this record,” Barrett wrote.

Roberts wrote, “The State’s present determination—that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero—appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake. Deference, though broad, has its limits.”

Last month, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied South Bay United Pentecostal Church’s request to overturn the state’s COVID-19 restrictions on indoor worship gatherings while acknowledging that the congregation was suffering “irreparable harm” due to the temporary ban.

“Although South Bay has demonstrated irreparable harm, it has not demonstrated that the likelihood of success, the balance of equities or the public interest weigh in its favor,” U.S. Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote in the court’s opinion at the time. “Although there is no record evidence that attendance at South Bay’s services in particular has contributed to the spread of the virus, the record does evidence outbreaks tied to religious gatherings in San Diego County and in the Southern California region.”

In November, a California judge ordered San Diego to reopen strip clubs while the county carried on with its restrictions on worship services and in-person learning at schools.

The state of California has faced numerous lawsuits stemming from the governor’s gathering restrictions as well as restrictions on other activities.

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