The Supreme Court ended California’s total ban on indoor worship in a late-night order on Friday. In a 6-3 decision, the court partially granted the request from two California churches and said that Gov. Newsom was “enjoined from enforcing the Blueprint’s Tier 1 prohibition on indoor worship services.”
Democrat California Governor Gavin Newsom’s most recent COVID-19 order, titled, “Blueprint to a Safer Economy,” was first issued on August 28. On November 16, Gov. Newsom applied an “emergency brake” that was built into the blueprint, and thereby pushed 94.1 percent of California’s population into the most stringent “Tier 1” Purple Tier.
Under the Purple Tier, houses of worship, which Gov. Newsom had deemed “non-essential,” were permitted to hold services “outdoor only with modifications.”
In a petition to the Supreme Court, South Bay United Pentecostal Church told the court that under the Purple Tier, “Places of Worship, since they are classified as non-essential, are not allowed to open. Services must be held outdoors only.”
However, under this tier numerous other secular establishments were permitted to open fully, including “essential” retail businesses like liquor stores and cannabis dispensaries, all government offices, banks and credit unions, convenience stores and childcare services, among others. Grocery stores and hotel fitness centers could have 50% capacity while bookstores, home improvement stores, libraries and florists were permitted to open at 25% capacity.
The petition challenged the unequal “Blueprint” order including Tiers one through four on houses of worship, along with Gov. Newsom’s prohibition on chanting and singing indoors.
The Supreme Court said that Gov. Newsom could no longer enforce the “Tier 1” prohibition on indoor worship but could enforce Tiers two through four. The “Tier 2” restriction permits churches to open at 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer.
“Respondents are not enjoined from imposing a 25% capacity limitation on indoor worship services in Tier 1,” the court said. “The application is denied with respect to the prohibition on singing and chanting during indoor services,” meaning that the prohibition remains in place, though the church can present new evidence on this prohibition to the lower courts.
Justices Thomas and Gorsuch would have granted South Bay’s application in full, essentially ending all COVID-19 capacity restrictions on worship in California. Justice Alito would grant the application in full but give the state 30 days to show “clearly that nothing short of those measures will reduce the community spread of COVID–19.”
Chief Justice Roberts agreed with the court’s opinion striking down the “Tier 1” total prohibition, as did Justices Barrett and Kavanaugh.
Justice Barrett, joined by Justice Kavanaugh, said she agreed with Justice Gorsuch’s six-page statement except for his “contention that the court should enjoin California’s prohibition on singing and chanting during indoor services.”
In his six-page statement, Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, said, “Since the arrival of COVID–19, California has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses.”
“Apparently, California is the only State in the country that has gone so far as to ban all indoor religious services. When a state so obviously targets religion for differential treatment, our job becomes that much clearer…
“The state presumes that worship inherently involves a large number of people. Never mind that scores might pack into train stations or wait in long checkout lines in the businesses the state allows to remain open. Never mind, too, that some worshippers may seek only to pray in solitude, go to confession, or study in small groups…
“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.
“As this crisis enters its second year—and hovers over a second Lent, a second Passover, and a second Ramadan—it is too late for the state to defend extreme measures with claims of temporary exigency, if it ever could. Drafting narrowly tailored regulations can be difficult. 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,” Justice Gorsuch opined.
Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, would have denied all of South Bay’s requests and argued that “justices of this court are not scientists… Yet today the court displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging pandemic.”
In summary, three justices (Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito) would have gone further than the court’s opinion and ended all COVID-19 capacity limits on worship in California. Three other justices (Roberts, Barrett and Kavanaugh) agreed with the court’s decision while the three liberal justices (Kagan, Breyer and Sotomayor) would have sided with the state of California on everything.
Eric Rassbach, an attorney at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, touted the ruling as a huge win for religious freedom.
“This is a huge win for religious liberty. 40 million people live in CA, and most haven’t been able to worship together for half a year. #SCOTUS has vindicated a core First Amendment right,” he tweeted.
For Christians in California waiting with anticipation to enter into the season of Lent, yesterday’s decision by the Supreme Court is a reason to celebrate.
The cases are South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Gavin Newsom and Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom.
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