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Supreme Court overturns COVID-19 Bible study limits

Another California worship restriction bites the dust

iStock.com/Jantanee Rungpranomkorn

Supreme Court overturns COVID-19 Bible study limits

Santa Clara County pastor Jeremy Wong and resident Karen Busch sued after California’s COVID-19 orders barred them from holding Bible study and prayer meetings in their homes. The Supreme Court late Friday decided in their favor, ruling 5-4 to strike down the restrictions limiting home religious gatherings to three households.

The conservative justices accepted Wong and Busch’s argument that banning religious gatherings from having more than three households at a time—while allowing secular activities like hair salons, retail stores, and indoor restaurants to operate—was unconstitutionally discriminatory.

Justice Elena Kagan, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, argued that since the state adopted a blanket restriction on both secular and religious home gatherings, the law complied with the First Amendment. Chief Justice John Roberts would have upheld the rules but did not join Kagan’s opinion.

But the majority said the “regulations are not neutral and generally applicable” and required strict scrutiny because they favored some comparable secular activities, even if not home gatherings, over religious ones. The justices chastised the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for failing to apply recent high court decisions, noting this is the ninth time they have rejected its reasoning regarding California’s COVID-19 limits on religious activities.

The justices also rejected arguments that the state’s plan to rescind the restrictions on April 15 made a ruling unecessary. The court noted officials would “retain authority to reinstate those heightened restrictions at any time.”

Late Monday, in response to the court’s ruling, the state announced it was lifting all location and capacity restrictions on places of worship, effective immediately. Restrictions on singing and chanting remain.

In November 2020 the court struck down New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s health restrictions on worship, ruling that “even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”

Rulings early this year buttressed that conclusion. In February, the court’s six conservative justices united to strike down California’s ban on indoor meetings but allowed the state to impose a 25 percent capacity restriction on places of worship. Later that month, the court granted an emergency request by a group of Silicon Valley churches to allow them to gather at 20 percent capacity, the same limit Santa Clara County imposes on retail businesses.

Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.



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