Supreme Court strikes down California indoor worship ban
Justice Neil Gorsuch chastises the state for infringing on religious liberty for so long
A divided Supreme Court late Friday set aside California’s COVID-19 restrictions banning indoor worship in most of the state. The decision brought to an end a rule that closed churches but allowed retail stores, hair salons, nail salons, and Hollywood studios to open.
In a pair of late-evening orders in the cases of two Southern California churches—South Bay United Pentecostal in the San Diego area and Harvest Rock in Pasadena—the court’s six conservative justices united in striking down the ban on indoor meetings but allowed California to impose a 25 percent capacity restriction on places of worship.
The justices declined to overrule California’s bar on singing and chanting in services. But they indicated the churches involved could present new evidence that the state was not applying the remaining restrictions in a fair manner.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch said they would have gone further and completely nixed the limits on indoor worship, singing, and chanting. Justice Samuel Alito would have lifted all prohibitions but stayed the order’s effect for 30 days to give the state a chance to prove it could find no less restrictive means of reducing the spread of the coronavirus.
In a Thanksgiving eve ruling, the Supreme Court previously struck down 10- and 25-person caps on worship imposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Since that time, lower courts considering similar cases have largely deferred to state-supplied experts rather than applying the Supreme Court’s precedent from the New York case. Friday’s decision should bolster the claims of other churches, like John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif, that have defied COVID-19 restrictions.
“California had no right to declare itself a religion-free zone,” said Eric Rassbach with the religious liberty law firm Becket, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Harvest Rock case. “When every other state in the country has figured out a way to both allow worship and protect the public health, maybe you are doing it wrong.” Maybe, as Gorsuch quipped, “something has gone seriously awry.”
In a concurring statement joined by Thomas and Alito, Gorsuch criticized California for singling out religion for worse treatment than many secular activities, even chastising lower courts for deferring to the state. “Today’s order should have been needless; the lower courts in these cases should have followed the extensive guidance this court already gave,” he wrote.
Gorsuch said he did not trust the state’s assertion that it would end the singing and chanting ban soon now that people could receive the coronavirus vaccine: “Government actors have been moving the goalposts on pandemic-related sacrifices for months, adopting new benchmarks that always seem to put restoration of liberty just around the corner.”
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