The United States Supreme Court has ruled that California Governor Gavin Newsom’s orders banning indoor church services may violate the Constitution’s protections on religion. The order effectively lifts the state ban on indoor religious gatherings.
In a 6-3 decision, the Justices granted an appeal late Friday evening from a south San Diego church that challenged the restrictions. The ruling set aside decisions by federal judges in San Diego and San Bernardino and the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. All of those courts upheld the state’s orders.
“While granting the rights to gather in worship, the Supreme Court said limiting attendance to 25% of the building’s capacity is okay, and further restrictions on singing and chanting – a sticking point with the San Diego church – could also be curtailed.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said that California is “the only state to ban indoor worship” in all but sparsely populated counties.
“Since the arrival of COVID–19, California has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses.” wrote Justice Neil M. Gorsuch in one of three concurring opinions. “California worries that worship brings people together for too much time. Yet, California does not limit its citizens to running in and out of other establishments; no one is barred from lingering in shopping malls, salons, or bus terminals.”
Gorsuch joined with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. in voting to lift all the restrictions, including limits on attendance and singing.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett was not convinced on the singing limits. Barrett said churches had 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,” she wrote. Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh agreed with her.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote Friday that he could not accept California’s “present determination that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero …. Deference, though broad, has its limits.”
The court’s three liberals, Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, dissented.
“Justices of this court are not scientists. Nor do we know much about public health policy. Yet today the court displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging pandemic,” Kagan wrote. “The court orders California to weaken its restrictions on public gatherings by making a special exception for worship services.”
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