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Supreme Court lifts California’s COVID ban on household religious gatherings

Supreme Court lifts California’s COVID ban on household religious gatherings

A 5-4 vote with Chief Justice John Roberts dissenting.

This February, Professor Jacobson reported that the U.S. Supreme Court issued an Order partially enjoining California’s total ban on indoor church services, but leaving in place restrictions on “singing and chanting” during services.

The Court was busy this week, once again, trying to protect religious liberty in this state. This time, the order focused on restrictions related to household religious gatherings.

For the fifth time, the U.S. Supreme Court has sided with religious adherents and against California’s COVID-19 restrictions. This time, the court barred the state from enforcing a rule that for now limits both religious and non-religious gatherings in homes to no more than three households.

The court’s unsigned order came on a 5-4 vote. Chief Justice John Roberts cast his lot with the dissenters, but failed to join their opinion. He noted simply that he would have left the lower court order intact.

The order blasted the 9th Circuit for its repeated rulings, which have supported limitations on religious activities beyond those established for secular ones.

“This is the fifth time the court has summarily rejected the 9th Circuit’s analysis of California’s COVID restrictions on religious exercise,” they said in Tandon vs. Newsom. In the most significant of the rulings, the court in early February said churches in California may open for indoor worship services, so long as they enforced limits on how many people gathered together.

Repeatedly in these cases, judges in California and the justices in Washington have disagreed over how to compare, for example, people gathering in a restaurant or hair salon to people gathering for a worship service. The state has enforced stricter limits on indoor gatherings such as in theaters or churches where people sit together for an hour or more while allowing retail stores where people go in and out to remain open.

In the latest order, the conservative justices again noted that the state has opened public businesses while restricting religious gatherings. And they said the state regulators are violating the 1st Amendment’s protection for the free exercise of religion “whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise.”

“California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise, permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants to bring together more than three households at a time,” they said in an unsigned order. “The 9th Circuit did not conclude that those activities pose a lesser risk of transmission than applicants’ proposed religious exercise at home.”

The order spoke for Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent for herself, Breyer, and Sotomayor, asserting that the court’s majority was hurting state officials’ ability to address a public health emergency.

“California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households. If the State also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment. And the State does exactly that: It has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike. California need not … treat at-home religious gatherings the same as hardware stores and hair salons,” she wrote. She added that “the law does not require that the State equally treat apples and watermelons.”

The case before the justices involved two residents of Santa Clara County in the San Francisco Bay Area, who want to host small, in-person Bible study sessions in their homes. California had defended its policy of restricting social gatherings as “entirely neutral.”

To put Kagan’s fear-based reason for supporting the liberty-crushing rules in perspective, here are some of the latest tracking graphs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the state:

Clearly, this is not some Black Death-scale medical crisis. And with vaccinations continuing, natural immunity developing, and the hospitals being far from overwhelmed (i.e., the curve is totally flattened), there is no logic to clinging behind the excuse of a public health crisis.

The Supreme Court says the order will go into effect next week. It should never have had to get that far.

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Comments

Hopefully, no one refers to Roberts as a conservative justice ever again. I fear how he will gut the 2A with his pretzel-like reasoning once a case reaches the SC.

Thanks again, W.

    GWB in reply to Paddy M. | April 12, 2021 at 9:26 am

    He’s the “apolitical” one, the “balancer” to keep things nice and not too progressive nor too constitutionalist. He will keep the court from being “partisan”.
    *spit*

OwenKellogg-Engineer | April 11, 2021 at 4:59 pm

What do they have on Roberts?

They don’t need anything on Roberts. I can’t understand why people still think he ever had any integrity.

“Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent for herself, Breyer, and Sotomayor, asserting that the court’s majority was hurting state officials’ ability to address a public health emergency.

I thought the question before the Court was not whether this restriction was a good idea, but whether it was Constitutional?

How, exactly, is Kagan’s dissent relevant to the matter at hand? Is Kagan asserting that that if government asserts a public health emergency exists and perhaps can find at least a few experts to support its position then government may then proceed to violate the Constitution?

stevewhitemd | April 11, 2021 at 8:07 pm

What the pandemic has exposed in a number of churches is that assembling together to worship the Lord wasn’t work the risk when there was something to risk.

Churches (and all houses of worship) should assemble for prayer, worship and fellowship. Fellowship particularly is essential. Is there some small risk that one will catch the Wuhan virus? Yes, perhaps, but that’s a risk we should take.

Open the churches.

The state has enforced stricter limits on indoor gatherings such as in theaters or churches where people sit together for an hour or more while allowing retail stores where people go in and out to remain open.

Fair enough. So allow gatherings in theaters and churches that last less than an hour. And ban people from spending more than an hour at a retail establishment.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

I fail to find any reason why any government can prohibit the free exercise of religion as long as they also restrict non-religious activity the same way. There is no exception to the clearly written 1st amendment.

    This is the progressive sleight of hand at work. Actually, government cannot restrict the free exercise of religion ever, under any circumstances per the Constitution. The anti-America left would have us believe that if they close Walmart they can close churches or bar people from gathering for religious services, Bible study, whatever. That dog won’t hunt. Walmart is not protected by the Constitution, our inalienable right to free exercise of our religion is. In a way, Kagan’s apples and watermelons analogy works here, just not in the way she intended.

      cannot restrict the free exercise of religion ever, under any circumstances per the Constitution
      Oh, c’mon!

      Very clearly they can restrict it when the rule is applied uniformly without regard to religious practice. You can’t commit human sacrifice in your religion – because killing people is against the law regardless of reason. You can’t even commit animal sacrifice if you violate animal cruelty laws (or health regulations – a sketchier area, imo) in doing so.

      Walmart is not protected by the Constitution
      Say what?!

      What about right to property? What about 4th and 5th Amendments? What about interference with contracts?

Bucky Barkingham | April 12, 2021 at 7:22 am

Once again CJUS Roberts shows how feckless he is. Great appointment W!

Say the name: Ashli Babbitt!

This is why the churches and their members should be ignoring the bans. It’s time to have that fight. Force the government to send the police or whatever goons they want and confront them at the sidewalk willing to be arrested. Then come back and do it again and again. Everywhere. All churches.

It’s been said that the the law is only thing standing between us and Satan. Well the law protecting us is gone. Maybe we just don’t have enough faith to stand our ground. If so, we deserve what is coming. So far, depending on miracles and the Republicans has been an epic fail.

Roberts has turned out to be a thoroughly greasy, politically-minded, malleable and unprincipled Justice and jurist. An absolute disgrace to the Court and to the U.S. Constitution.

Just ponder what a thin reed our basic constitutional liberties are resting upon. No-brainer constitutional questions and SCOTUS decisions that should be 9-0 or 8-1, are being upheld by the thinnest margins of 5-4. And, these are for rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights! Meanwhile, utterly contrived “rights” that have no constitutional underpinning and which are exclusively the product of Justices’ narcissismm arrogance and sophistry (e.g., homosexual marriage; abortion; the expansion of Title VII to “transgendered” people; etc.) are given the Court’s imprimatur of legitimacy. It’s maddening.

Something has gone seriously awry with the educating of Americans with regard to the U.S. Constitution and individual liberty.

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