On Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States lifted California’s ban on indoor worship during the coronavirus pandemic, protecting religious liberty with its decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom and order in Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom.
These rulings halted California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 restrictions that prevented churches and other religious congregations from meeting indoors while other groups were still permitted to do so. While maintaining that churches should not sing or meet at more 25% capacity, the decision and order give churches the opportunity to present new evidence in district court showing that these restrictions are not being applied at least equally with other activities across the state.
Prior to the ruling, Newsom had banned indoor worship services in purple-tiered counties, that is counties that were deemed to be at widespread risk of coronavirus transmission. This tier accounts for the vast majority of the state.
“Gov. Newsom has a duty to respect the First Amendment, so he can’t single out church worship services and other religious meetings for the draconian COVID-19 restrictions that many secular activities haven’t faced in California,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel and Vice President of U.S. Litigation David Cortman. “The Supreme Court is reinforcing what it has affirmed in previous orders: Disparate treatment is both illogical and unconstitutional.”
The decision takes into account data from other restrictions that California had put in place but ultimately concludes that although the state has the right and responsibility to set some restrictions if it deems them in the public interest, this should not come at the expense of religious liberty.
“The Supreme Court’s decision is a significant win for ensuring that government officials do not exceed their authority by bypassing the First Amendment when implementing coronavirus restrictions,” said Cortman. “Churches in the state may once again meet indoors, and the justices indicated that the other restrictions to which religious gatherings are wrongly subjected may face significant legal and constitutional hurdles going forward.”
Churches say that they will continue to petition for the right to sing during indoor services, citing the fact that the state allowed the entertainment industry to film a singing competition but continues to restrict singing in places of worship.
Although the application for injunctive relief was granted in part, it was denied with respect to the percentage capacity limitations, and the state is still permitted to enforce a 25% capacity limit on indoor worship services. The application was also denied with respect to the prohibition on singing during these indoor services.
“While we applaud the Supreme Court ruling in that it is a step in the right direction, full relief should have been granted from the restrictions the state of California placed on the free exercise of religion,” said Troy A. Miller, NRB CEO. “People of faith are still being singled out for disparate treatment, and this must end. Churches are essential and the government must recognize this and treat them fairly.”
Several justices were not satisfied with granting the application only in part. The written decision from the Supreme Court indicated that both Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Neil Gorsuch would grant the application in full, while Justice Samuel Alito would grant the application in full, preventing the State from placing percentage attendance caps and indoor singing restrictions for 30 days. If during those 30 days, the State were able to demonstrate clearly that “nothing short of those measures will reduce the community spread of COVID-19 at indoor religious gatherings to the same extent as do the restrictions the State enforces with respect to other activities it classifies as essential,” those limitations could be reimplemented for indoor worship services.