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With Barrett on Supreme Court, Church of California’s COVID limits overturned

THROUGH BEN CHRISTOPHE, CalMatters

California churches are on the rise.

After more than a year of legal wrangling with state public health officials over restrictions on indoor gatherings, places of worship – mostly evangelical or Catholic and politically conservative – have experienced a winning streak before the highest court in the land.

Their latest victory came at the end of last week when the Conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court put a wedge on state limits on indoor Bible study and other forms of worship. Most legal battles take place over years, and this was a preliminary decision; the judges overturned an appeals court’s decision not to suspend state rules while the larger case unfolds. But the majority of the court went to great lengths to note a clear trend.

“This is the fifth time the court has summarily dismissed the Ninth Circuit analysis of California’s COVID restrictions on religious exercise,” the notice read, referring to the California-based federal court of appeals.

Taking the hint, the California Department of Public Health quickly re-inked its regulations, stressing that although “the limits of places of worship are no longer compulsory”, they remain “strongly recommended”.

California’s COVID-19 restrictions across all walks have been challenged in court at least 83 times since the start of the pandemic, according to a CalMatters Database. Most of these cases have yet to be resolved in one way or another, but few have gained much procedural force. State and federal judges have generally given Governor Gavin Newsom wide latitude to shut down businesses, restrict celebrations and gatherings, and choose activities deemed “essential” in the name of public health.

But the religious freedom trials were the notable exception. Since last April, ten churches and faith-based organizations have sued the state. So far, half of them have found a receptive audience at the United States Supreme Court.

This trend has placed further restrictions on the ability of Newsom – and governors across the country – to govern by emergency decree during the pandemic. It also signals a broader ideological shift in the federal justice system that could provide new, more precise control over Democratic state lawmakers even after most of us are vaccinated and even if the state fully reopens. as planned on June 15.

Some conservative religious groups have welcomed the new round of decisions. On Tuesday, a legislative committee heard a invoice introduced by State Senator Brian Jones, a Republican from Santee, who would require the state to designate places of worship “essential”, thereby exempting them from general restrictions in the event of a public emergency – epidemiological or otherwise.

The bill was sponsored by a coalition of conservative Christian organizations such as the California Family Council and Real Impact, a lobby group affiliated with Calvary Chapel Chino Hills.

“While I believe the court was correct in these rulings to ensure that a future governor in a future emergency does not try again, we must ensure the right to practice religion in state law.” Jones said during the committee’s lengthy hearing. in the Senate.

Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California, backed down, saying the bill would deprive elected leaders and public health officials of the flexibility they need to keep Californians safe.

“This bill attempts to change what is a fair balance between individual liberty and public health, and we believe it is dangerous to tip the scales this far,” she said.

Democrats sided with DeBurgh’s argument. And unlike federal justice, Democrats control the California legislature. Bill is dead, with 2 “yes” and 7 “no”.

A change at the High Court

The new legal reality fully took hold last November when the country’s highest court, joined by its new judge, Amy Coney Barrett, lowered the rules in New York state who restricted religious gatherings in the name of public health.

California has since received treatment from New York. In December, the court started a business brought by Pasadena’s Harvest Rock Church to a lower court, asking appeals court judges to reconsider the litigation in light of the recent New York ruling.

In February, the court went further, siding with a church in Chula Vista in its challenges to state capacity restrictions on places of worship. The South Bay Pentecostal Church had a particularly strong ally in Judge Neil Gorsuch, who criticized California for “openly imposing stricter regulations on religious institutions than on many corporations.”

Upon publication of the New York Notice, Harmeet Dhillon, a California Republican and a regular challenger of the governor’s policy response to the pandemic said his law firm has started to be “inundated with requests from potential new plaintiffs.”

“I expect there will be no shortage of work for First Amendment lawyers over the next year or so,” she said at the time.

The Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena is pleading with the best judges in the country to temporarily suspend California’s COVID-related restrictions on churches – in their words, to “prevent the criminalization of constitutionally protected religious exercise” – while his broader legal fight with the ‘State. Indoor worship services, which often include singing, touching, and exchanging collecting plaques or other germ-carrying objects, can be prime hotspots for viral transmission. Churches in Sacramento, Los Angeles, Redness and San Diego have been the epicenter of local epidemics.

Former President Donald Trump upset the ideological balance of the court by choosing Barrett to replace Liberal Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who died of pancreatic cancer in September 2020.

This new reality was clear in the decision that New York State had violated the rights of the first amendment religious observers by limiting attendance to places of worship between 10 and 25 people. The nine judges were divided five to four, with Barrett in the majority.

It was a sharp reversal from last summer, when a majority of five members, including Ginsburg, took the opposite stance, refusing to abolish pandemic restrictions in both California and Nevada.

Balancing the constitutional rights of the faithful with the demands of epidemiologists and elected officials, courts should defer to experts, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in May, dismissing a petition filed by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista.

Public safety decrees “should not be challenged by an” unelected federal judiciary “, which lacks the experience, skills and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to it. the people, ”he wrote.

This agreement was cited 114 times by lower courts “desperately for advice” as places of worship file similar lawsuits across the country, said Josh Blackman, a law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston and a scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute.

With the decision of the Supreme Court in New York, this opinion of Roberts “overnight became moot,” he said. “The old standard is out.”

Trump-appointed Judge Neil Gorsuch made it very clear in his scathing deal with the majority in the New York case, in which he accused Roberts of “loosing the Constitution” with his opinion on South Bay . Gorsuch has warned his fellow judges that they “cannot shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack.”

There’s only one logical way to explain the court’s 180-degree pivot, said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley law school. Barrett has Ginsberg headquarters.

“I don’t think any of the judges would have said that the difference (between the two cases) is based on the factual circumstances,” he said. Harvest Rock Church and its corresponding network of Christian ministries and universities are part of the New Apostolic Reform movement, in which worship often includes “The laying on of hands” and “Speak in tongues” – spiritual practices which do not necessarily translate well into Zoom.

But the church trial is also political. Led by Pastor Ché Ahn, who often spice up his sermons with pro-Trump political messages, the church began publicly flouting state public health decrees early last summer. In its filing with the Supreme Court, the church’s legal team included a number of beards designed to portray Newsom as a hypocrite, including a photo of the governor attending lobbyist birthday party at Tony French Laundry restaurant in Napa County.

In response to these legal challenges, the state argued that, unlike regulations promulgated by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the California rules do not treat religious institutions more strictly than comparable secular gathering places.

“Indoor activities with equally high transmission risks, such as dining out, exercising in gyms or socializing in bars, are subject to the same or more severe restrictions; while still others, such as attending indoor concerts or professional sporting events, are totally banned, ”California Deputy Attorney General Seth Goldstein wrote in the state’s response to the case. Harvest Rock.

At the height of the pandemic, when the majority of the state’s population fell below the most restrictive “purple level,” California rules still allowed multiple people to enter grocery stores, malls, and more. distribution and logistics warehouses.

In her dissenting opinion last week, Judge Elena Kagan sided with California, arguing that the state was obligated to treat religious activities the same as secular activities, depending on the threat each. represented for public health.

California does not need to “treat home church gatherings the same as hardware stores and barber shops,” she wrote. “The law does not require the state to also process apples and watermelons. “



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