In a decision released Friday night, April 9, 2021, the United States Supreme Court has blocked California’s COVID-19 restrictions on in-home religious gatherings.
In a per curiam decision, joined by five of the nine Supreme Court justices, the justices observed that this was the fifth time the Court had overturned California restrictions on the free exercise of religion that the 9th Circuit had upheld.
The Court notes that California, which has imposed some of the strictest, although unenforceable, restrictions on religious actions, has passed regulations that contain “myriad exceptions and accommodations for comparable activities, thus requiring the application of strict scrutiny.”
To meet “strict scrutiny,” the Court said, California “must do more than assert that certain risk factors ‘are always present in worship, or always absent from other secular activities’ that the Court may allow.” (South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, 592 U.S. ___ (2021)
California, the Court found, “has not shown that ‘public health would be imperiled’ by employing less restrictive measures.”
The Court found that the state has allowed other activities that “have contributed to the spread of COVID-19” or “could” have presented similar risks.
Chief Justice Roberts did not join the five in this opinion but did not join the separate dissent by Justices Kagan, Breyer, or Sotomayor, who argued that religious gatherings are different enough from permitted secular activities to justify increased restrictions.
Just before the case went up on appeal, California revised its regulations effective April 15 to allow up to 50 people to attend outdoor gatherings and 25 people to attend indoor gatherings. The state had argued that “the expiration of the challenged policy makes injunctive relief unnecessary.” (See California Opposition to Emergency Application for Writ of Injunction)
That the Supreme Court held a hearing on this case signaled the Court’s intention to resolve the issue that it has heard so many times in the last few months.
Case Ruling: Ritesh Tandon v. Gavin Newsom, 593 U.S. ____ (2021)