The Supreme Court tells California it cannot ban indoor religious services due to the coronavirus pandemic, but it can uphold the ban on singing and singing indoors for now.
The High Court issued orders Friday night in two cases where churches had sued over coronavirus-related restrictions in the state. The High Court said that at this time California cannot ban indoor worship as it has been in most of the state because cases of the virus are high.
The judges said the state can cap interior services at 25% of a building’s capacity. Judges also refused to prevent California from enforcing a ban put in place last summer on singing and indoor singing. California had put the restrictions in place because the virus spreads more easily indoors and singing releases tiny droplets that can carry the disease.
The judges acted on emergency demands to end restrictions on South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry, based in Pasadena, which has more than 160 churches across the state.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “federal courts owe politically responsible officials great deference” to public health restrictions, but said the deference “has its limits.”
Roberts wrote that California’s 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 rather insufficient appreciation or consideration. interests at stake “.
In addition to Roberts, Judge Neil Gorsuch and Judge Amy Coney Barrett also wrote to explain their point of view. Gorsuch and Judge Clarence Thomas have reportedly prevented California from enforcing its singing ban. Barrett, the court’s most recent judge, disagreed. Writing for herself and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, she said it was not clear at this point whether the singing ban was enforced “at all levels.”
She wrote that “if a backing vocalist can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in their church, California regulations cannot be considered neutral,” prompting stricter scrutiny by the courts. The judges said churches that have sued can submit new evidence to a lower court that the ban on singing is not generally enforced.
The court’s three liberal justices expressed their dissent, saying they would have upheld the California restrictions. Judge Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent for herself, Judge Stephen Breyer and Judge Sonia Sotomayor that the court’s action “risks worsening the pandemic”. She said the court “made a special exception for religious services” rather than treating them like other activities where large groups of people meet “in close proximity for long periods of time.” In areas of California where COVID-19 is prevalent, which includes most of the state, activities such as indoor dining and going to the movies are prohibited.
“I fervently hope that the Court’s intervention will not worsen the Nation’s COVID crisis. But if this decision causes suffering, we will not pay. Our marble rooms are now closed to the public, and our mandate to life forever isolates us from responsibility for our mistakes. This would seem a good reason to avoid disrupting a state’s response to the pandemic. But the court is moving forward anyway, insisting that the policy based on science gives way to judicial decree, ”she wrote.
Charles LiMandri, lawyer for the United Pentecostal Church of South Bay, said in a statement that he and his clients were “encouraged by this order” and “thanked the High Court for defending religious freedom.”
Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, who represents Harvest Rock Church, said in a statement that he and his clients “will continue to defend this case until religious freedom is fully restored.”
The court action follows a ruling in a New York City case late last year in which judges split 5-4 in banning the state from enforcing certain limits on church attendance and synagogues. Shortly after, the judges asked a federal court to reconsider California’s restrictions in light of the ruling.