The Supreme Court issued an Order last night partially enjoining California’s total ban on indoor church services, but leaving in place restrictions on “singing and chanting” during services (seriously).

The Order and breakdown of individual Justice opinions, is enumerated in a Concurring Opinion by Chief Justice Roberts:

The application for injunctive relief presented to JUSTICE KAGAN and by her referred to the Court is granted in part. Respondents are enjoined from enforcing the Blueprint’s Tier 1 prohibition on indoor worship services against the applicants pending disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari. The application is denied with respect to the percentage capacity limitations, and respondents are not enjoined from imposing a 25% capacity limitation on indoor worship services in Tier 1. The application is denied with respect to the prohibition on singing and chanting during indoor services. This order is without prejudice to the applicants presenting new evidence to the District Court that the State is not applying the percentage capacity limitations or the prohibition on singing and chanting in a generally applicable manner. Should the petition for a writ of certiorari be denied, this order shall terminate automatically. In the event the petition for a writ of certiorari is granted, the order shall terminate upon the sending down of the judgment of this Court.

JUSTICE THOMAS and JUSTICE GORSUCH would grant the application in full.

JUSTICE ALITO would grant the application with respect to all of the capacity restrictions on indoor worship services and the prohibition against indoor singing and chanting, and would stay for 30 days an injunction against the percentage attendance caps and the prohibition against indoor singing and chanting. JUSTICE ALITO would have the stay lift in 30 days unless the State demonstrates clearly that nothing short of those measures will reduce the community spread of COVID–19 at indoor religious gatherings to the same extent as do the restrictions the State enforces with respect to other activities it classifies as essential.

Here is some of Roberts’ reasoning:

As I explained the last time the Court considered this evolving case, federal courts owe significant deference to politically accountable officials with the “background, competence, and expertise to assess public health.” South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, 590 U. S. ___, ___ (2020) (opinion concurring in denial of application for injunctive relief ) (slip op., at 2). The State has concluded, for example, that singing indoors poses a heightened risk of transmitting COVID–19. I see no basis in this record for overriding that aspect of the state public health framework. At the same time, the State’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.

You can read Justice Gorsuch’s opinion, joined by Thomas and Alito, here:

If I have a quibble with the Court’s order, it is with how it addresses California’s final factor, singing. While the Court’s order requires California to allow churches to open, it also permits California to enforce, for now, a categorical ban on singing during services. This much might seem understandable. California has sensibly expressed concern that singing may be a particularly potent way to transmit the disease, and it has banned singing not just at indoor worship services, but at indoor private gatherings, schools, and restaurants too.

But, on further inspection, the singing ban may not be what it first appears. It seems California’s powerful entertainment industry has won an exemption.2 So, 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. See, e.g., Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, 591 U. S. ___, ___ 2020) (GORSUCH, J., dissenting from denial of application for injunction relief ). Once more, too, the State has not explained how a total ban on religious singing is narrowly tailored to its legitimate public health concerns. Even if a full congregation singing hymns is too risky, California does not explain why even a single masked cantor cannot lead worship behind a mask and a plexiglass shield. Or why even a lone muezzin may not sing the call to prayer from a remote location inside a mosque as worshippers file in….

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 Barrett, joined by Kavanaugh, agreeing with Roberts about the singing and chanting restrictions:

I agree with JUSTICE GORSUCH’s statement, save its contention that the Court should enjoin California’s prohibition on singing and chanting during indoor services. The applicants bore the burden of establishing their entitlement to relief from the singing ban. In my view, they did not carry that burden—at least not on this record. As the case comes to us, it remains unclear whether the singing ban applies across the board (and thus constitutes a neutral and generally applicable law) or else favors certain sectors (and thus triggers more searching review). Of course, if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral. But the record is uncertain, and the decisions below unfortunately shed little light on the issue. As the order notes, however, the applicants remain free to show that the singing ban is not generally applicable and to advance their claim accordingly.

Justice Kagan, joined by Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented:

Justices of this Court are not scientists. Nor do we know much about public health policy. Yet today the Court displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging pandemic. The Court orders California to weaken its restrictions on public gatherings by making a special exception for worship services. The majority does so even though the State’s policies treat worship just as favorably as secular activities (including political assemblies) that, according to medical evidence, pose the same risk of COVID transmission. Under the Court’s injunction, the State must instead treat worship services like secular activities that pose a much lesser danger. That mandate defies our caselaw, exceeds our judicial role, and risks worsening the pandemic.

So you can pray indoors subject to the usual social distancing, but only the way the government wants.

In other news, Hollywood still gets special treatment.

[Featured Image: via YouTube]

 

 
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