Supreme Court Rules California Violates Religious Rights for Banning Indoor Worship Services Amid Pandemic

Supreme Court California indoor worship services ban violates religious rights

A divided Supreme Court ruled against California in a case challenging the state’s ban on in-person, indoor worship services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under California’s Blueprint for reducing the spread of COVID-19, Places of Worship are under the Tier 1 category. The state strictly prohibits indoor worship services. Churches may only conduct outdoor worship services with modifications.

On May 8, 2020, the South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Bishop Arthur Hodges III  filed a complaint alleging that Governor Gavin Newsom’s restriction for in-person, indoor worship services violates their religious rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. They requested a temporary restraining order to stop the state from enforcing its restriction.

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On May 15, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California denied the church’s request. The church appealed the district court’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which also denied their request. The plaintiffs then requested the Ninth Circuit to send their appeal back to the district court to reconsider their request due to new developments. The Ninth Circuit granted their request.

On October 15, 2020, the district court once again denied the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary injunction.

The plaintiffs brought their case to the Supreme Court. They requested an injunction against California’s ban on indoor worship services.

Supreme Court orders California to allow indoor worship services

In a 6-3 ruling late Friday, the nation’s highest court granted in part the plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief.

The Supreme ruled that California can not impose its Blueprint’s Tier 1 totally banning indoor worship service. However, the state can enforce 25% capacity limitations for places of worship under Tier 1.

Additionally, the nation’s highest court allowed California to prohibit singing and chanting during indoor worship services to prevent the spread of the deadly COVID-19.

A regulation that targets religion for differential treatment violates the First Amendment

In his concurring opinion granting the injunctive relief,  Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, Since the arrival of COVID–19, California has openly imposed more stringent
regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses. The State’s spreadsheet summarizing its pandemic rules even assigns places of worship their own row.”

“Meanwhile, the State allows most retail operations to proceed indoors with 25% occupancy, and other businesses to operate at 50% occupancy or more…When a State so obviously targets religion for differential treatment, our job becomes that much clearer. As the Ninth Circuit recognized, regulations like these violate the First Amendment unless the State can show they are the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest.”

Justices are not scientists

On the other hand, in her dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “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. The Court orders California to weaken its restrictions on public gatherings by making a special exception for worship services…”

“Under the Court’s injunction, the State must instead treat worship services like secular activities that pose a much lesser danger. That mandate defies our caselaw, exceeds our judicial role, and risks worsening the pandemic.”

The decision of the Supreme Court shows that the six justices appointed by a Republican president are united in protecting religious rights.

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