By Amy Howe
on February 6, 2021
at 2:52 a.m.
The court issued its ruling on the COVID-related worship restrictions in California at around 11:00 p.m. Friday night. (Katie Barlow)
More than eight months after the Supreme Court refused to intervene in a California church’s challenge to stay at home orders issued by the state due to the COVID-19 crisis, judges gave California churches permission late Friday night Resumption of services indoors. The court was divided in its decision that will continue to allow the state to enforce its ban on singing and to limit attendance to 25% of capacity.
The decision fell on two challenges: the South Bay United Pentecostal Church south of San Diego and the Harvest Rock Church with locations in different locations in southern California. They came before the Supreme Court last month, arguing that California’s restrictions on indoor worship are against the constitution, especially if some businesses are allowed to stay open. Churches pointed to the November 2020 Supreme Court ruling against Cuomo in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, which blocked the enforcement of a New York executive order that restricted attendance at church services. The California churches complained that the lower courts “did not recognize” the “seismic shift” in COVID-19 case law that produced the Supreme Court ruling in the Roman Catholic diocese.
In two orders issued just before 11 p.m. on Friday night, a split court gave the churches most – if not all – of what they wanted by clearing the way for churches to hold services indoors until their callings were resolved are. The judges allowed the state to enforce attendance restrictions and a ban on singing and chanting, but left open the possibility that the churches could return to court with evidence that the state does not apply either of the restrictions to everyone.
Friday’s decision sparked mixed opinions. Judges Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch said they gave the churches everything they asked – that is, they could reopen immediately without restrictions. In a statement, which Judge Samuel Alito followed, they suggested that in this case it would not be difficult to determine whether California had chosen the religion for special and stricter treatment. They acknowledged that the state “has a compelling interest in reducing the risk of transmitting COVID-19” but were skeptical that the state’s justification for restricting worship is that people from different households are present Meeting and singing for long periods of time – are unique to church services. The judges concluded by stating that in pre-trial detention the state can argue that the restrictions are temporary “because vaccinations are ongoing”. But it is “too late for the state” to make that argument when “this crisis enters its second year,” they point out, and “when Hollywood is allowed to host a studio audience or film a singing contest while not a soul enters California churches may, synagogues and mosques, something has gone seriously wrong. “
Although Alito endorsed Thomas and Gorsuch’s statement and agreed with them that he would fully comply with the demands of the churches, he stated that his preferred course would have been to give the state 30 more days to provide additional evidence to submit before an injunction against the singing ban and the capacity limits of 25% could take effect. Alito’s suggestion would be that this order would come into effect after 30 days unless the state could demonstrate that “nothing less than these measures will reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the community at indoor religious gatherings to the same extent as dated State enforced restrictions on other activities are deemed material. “
Judge Amy Coney Barrett submitted a brief statement, which was joined by Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It focused on the court’s decision to allow the state, at least for the time being, to enforce its ban on chanting and chanting at church services. She stated that it is the responsibility of the churches to show that they are entitled to an exemption from the ban on singing and that, at least in her opinion, they have not done so. As a result, it is not clear whether the ban on singing only applies to church services or whether it applies more generally – for example to Hollywood productions. The one-part opinion was the first signed opinion Barrett has issued since joining the Supreme Court in October.
In his own opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts reiterated a view he had expressed in an earlier South Bay United Pentecostal Church challenge: the idea that “federal courts should have politically accountable officials with the background, competence and expertise to rate are, pay great respect to public health. As a result, Roberts saw no reason to undo the state’s determination that singing indoors posed a higher risk for the transmission of COVID-19. The ban on indoor worship “does not, however, evidently reflect any specialist knowledge or discretion, but an insufficient appreciation of the interests in question”. “Respect, though broad,” he concluded, “has its limits.”
Judge Elena Kagan contradicted the decision in a six-page statement, which was followed by Judges Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. She complained that while the judges were “not scientists” and “do not know much about public health policy”, the majority chose to “use expert judgments on response to a raging pandemic” to displace. “Under the injunction of the court,” complained Kagan, California “must treat worship services as secular activities that pose a much lower risk.” This mandate contradicts our jurisprudence, exceeds our judicial role and carries the risk of worsening the pandemic. “No one can know exactly why from the 19-line arrangement of the Tribunal,” Kagan concludes: “Is it that the Tribunal does not believe science, or does it believe that even the best science must give in ? ” ”
Kagan concluded by suggesting that Friday’s order raises questions – such as when capacity restrictions are allowed and whether a ban on indoor worship is ever allowed – that may recur in future cases. “The court’s decision,” she noted, “is driving state policymakers in California and elsewhere.” In a predictable legal environment, it is difficult enough to create COVID policies that will keep communities safe. This task becomes even more difficult when officials have to guess what restrictions this court will choose on the strike, ”she wrote.
This article was originally published by Howe on the Court.