The Supreme Court slams California restrictions on indoor church services while finding that capacity and singing limitations can stand.

Late Friday night, February 5, 2021, the US Supreme Court issued a pair of orders that overruled California state restrictions that completely barred churches from meeting indoors but left in place percentage capacity limitations and bans on singing or chanting.

In a statement issued with the decision, Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, wrote, "Since the arrival of COVID-19, California has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses." While churches faced restrictions, "the State allows most retail operations to proceed indoors with 25% occupancy, and other businesses to operate at 50% occupancy or more . . . . Apparently, California is the only state in the country that has gone so far as to ban all indoor religious services."

Justice Gorsuch noted that "the State does not force [hairstylists or manicurists] or retailers to do all their business in parking lots and parks." Concerning the length of the restrictions, Justice Gorsuch wrote, "the State's 'temporary' ban on indoor worship has been in place since August 2020 and applied routinely since March. California no longer asks its movie studios, malls, and manicurists to wait. And one could be forgiven for doubting its asserted timeline. 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.

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. Justice Gorsuch

. . . . But if Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California's churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry."

The justices were divided on how to address the issue. Justice Barrett and Justice Kavanaugh agreed with the decision that allowed some restrictions. Justices Thomas and Gorsuch indicated that they would have disallowed all restrictions, Justice Alito would have allowed the restrictions to remain for 30 days during which time the state would be ordered to provide evidence "that nothing short of those measures will reduce the community spread of COVID-19 at indoor religious gatherings." Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor would have left all the restrictions in place.

Chief Justice Robert agreed with the partial decision as it was written, stating that "federal courts owe significant deference to politically accountable officials" who can address public health issues.

Decision:  South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom

Order:  Harvest Rock Church et al. v. Newsom

 

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