The U.S. Supreme Court in a late 6-3 ruling on Friday allowed indoor worship services to resume in California, enjoining the total prohibition on those services in counties within the most restrictive tier of the state’s COVID-19 response blueprint.
The blueprint, enacted on Aug. 28, created a four-tier system for California counties, based on how rampant the virus is in a given county. Under Tier 1, indoor worship services are prohibited completely. Under Tier 2, they’re capped at the lesser of 25% capacity or 100 attendees, and at the lesser of 50% capacity or 200 attendees under Tier 3.
In the ruling blocking the Tier 1 prohibition, the high court noted that the state is not enjoined from enforcing the percentage capacity restrictions under the other tiers, nor from imposing a 25% capacity restriction under Tier 1. It also left in place the state’s ban on singing and chanting during indoor worship services.
The court’s decision came in response to a petition by Chula Vista-based South Bay United Pentecostal Church, who claimed that California’s restrictions unconstitutionally treated secular activity more favorably than religious activity. Last June, the court upheld California’s rules in a 5-4 decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing that deference to state officials is especially warranted “while local officials are actively shaping their response to changing facts on the ground.”
But in December, the newly constituted high court granted requests from a Roman Catholic diocese and two Orthodox Jewish synagogues to lift similar restrictions on in-person worship in New York in a 5-4 decision, holding the religious entities were likely to prevail on their claim that the restrictions violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.
In Friday’s ruling, Roberts wrote a concurrence referring to his earlier decision in “this evolving case,” reaffirming that “federal courts owe significant deference to politically accountable officials with the ‘background, competence, and expertise to assess public health.'”
But he added that California’s “present determination — that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero — appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.”
“Deference, though broad, has its limits,” Roberts wrote.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote separately to state that he would also enjoin California’s ban on indoor singing, writing that “once more, we appear to have a State playing favorites during a pandemic, expending considerable effort to protect lucrative industries (casinos in Nevada; movie studios in California) while denying similar largesse to its faithful.”
However, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the high court’s newest justice, wrote that in her view the church didn’t sufficiently establish entitlement to relief from the singing ban, writing that it’s still unclear whether the ban applies “across the board” or “favors certain sectors.”
“Of course, if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral,” Barrett wrote. “But the record is uncertain, and the decisions below unfortunately shed little light on the issue.”
Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, authored a dissent, writing that the majority’s decision “displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging pandemic.”
“Under the Court’s injunction, the State must instead treat worship services like secular activities that pose a much lesser danger,” Kagan wrote. “That mandate defies our caselaw, exceeds our judicial role, and risks worsening the pandemic.”
A spokesperson for the California governor’s office said in an emailed statement that the state will “continue to enforce the restrictions the Supreme Court left in place and, after reviewing the decision, revise guidelines for worship services to continue to protect the lives of Californians.”
Counsel for South Bay United could not be immediately reached for comment.
The case is South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, case number 20A136, in the Supreme Court of the United States.
Last month, the Ninth Circuit lifted California’s fixed attendance caps on indoor worship services, writing that those caps couldn’t survive strict scrutiny, while leaving in place the state’s other restrictions on indoor worship.
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