In what looks like very promising news from the U.S. Supreme Court today for the nation’s churches hard-pressed by COVID closure orders, the justices today ordered the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to take a second look at a case involving Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, California.
The one-paragraph order instructs the 9th Circuit to send the case back to the U.S. District Court that originally heard – and denied – the church’s plea for relief from Governor Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 executive orders that unfairly discriminated against churches. It further orders the lower court to reconsider the church’s claim in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision involving New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s orders regarding church gatherings.
In the New York case, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, a Catholic archdiocese and an Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization had asked for relief from Gov. Cuomo’s orders limiting church attendance while permitting similarly situated secular entities and businesses to enjoy greater freedom and public access.
In a November 25 order in the New York case, the Supreme Court granted an injunction in favor of the churches in a 5-4 decision which changed the way the court had been deciding these cases in the months before Justice Amy Coney Barrett arrived. The addition of Justice Barrett and her philosophical alignment with the rest of the court’s conservatives – Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – on this issue turned the conservative minority into a majority by the time the New York case was decided.
The Supreme Court’s order in the California case does not by itself reverse the lower court decision, but orders a judicial “do-over” in light of the high court’s reasoning in the New York case. And the California case could end up back at the Supreme Court again no matter what action the lower court now takes.
But the new direction the high court has taken bodes well for Harvest Rock Church and other potential church claimants affected by discriminatory lockdown orders or gathering restrictions.
Harvest Rock is represented by lawyers at Liberty Counsel. In a press release, Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court provides great relief for churches and places of worship. The handwriting is now on the wall. The final days of Governor Gavin Newsom’s ‘color-coded executive edicts’ banning worship are numbered and coming to an end. It is past time to end these unconstitutional restrictions on places of worship.”
According to Liberty Counsel, the restrictions against places of worship in California are more severe than those in New York. Governor Gavin Newsom’s orders ban all in-person worship for 99.1% of Californians.
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