The new Los Angeles COVID restriction language specifically exempts religious gatherings as a matter of constitutional right.
On December 1, Los Angeles County instituted a new “stay-at-home” order that specifically exempts religious services and protests from the restrictions.
According to the new rules, which generally increase restrictions on non-religious activity, “All public and private gatherings with individuals not in your household are prohibited, except for church services and protests, which are constitutionally protected rights.”
Los Angeles County, which is the most populous in the United States, had been involved in litigation with several religious congregations who had argued that the existing restrictions violated constitutional rights to assembly and free exercise of religion. The County had imposed thousands of dollars of fines on several congregations, including Grace Community Church.
After the Supreme Court issued its ruling in a New York case on the night before Thanksgiving, it became clear that the majority of the Court believes that churches have an equal protection argument for meeting in line with other businesses and have a specific constitutional right to do so.
Rather than continue to press the issue and face an increasingly likely failure at the United States Supreme Court, it appears that Los Angeles County has decided to recognize that religious congregations do indeed have a constitutional right to meet.
Although it was a preliminary injunction, the Court’s ruling last week in Archdiocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo will have broad-reaching effects. It required the state to demonstrate a compelling state interest to restrict the free exercise of religion. Before that, under Employment Division v. Smith, the government would have to show that it treated everybody equally and did not treat churches worse than other businesses. This ruling might have the long-needed effect of restoring pre-Smith free exercise jurisprudence to the states.
The new Los Angeles COVID restriction language specifically exempts religious gatherings as a matter of constitutional right. Other local and state governments will likely follow suit and stop making threats of fines or even incarceration for pastors. At the same time, churches should address the risks with wisdom and not take unnecessary risks with attendees and surrounding communities’ health during the COVID-19 pandemic.