The Supreme Court has blocked a California restriction that limits in-home religious worship, finding the regulation violates the First Amendment.
The Associated Press reported, “the order from the court late Friday is the latest in a recent string of cases in which the high court has barred officials from enforcing some coronavirus-related restrictions applying to religious gatherings.” According to the AP, “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.”
“The court ruled – again – that California’s different and worse rules for the temples of God than the temples of commerce – did not withstand strict scrutiny,” tweeted Harmeet K. Dhillon, who represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The court ruled — again — that California’s different and worse rules for the temples of God than the temples of commerce — did not withstand strict scrutiny. https://t.co/GbNBYWqsLA
— Harmeet K. Dhillon (@pnjaban) April 10, 2021
The 5-4 unsigned opinion was published just before midnight on Friday, revealing ideological divisions on the high court.
The Supreme Court majority determined: “California treats some comparable secular activities more favorable 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.”
USA Today reported, “the court also noted that this was the fifth time it had overturned the California-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in similar cases,” and:
California had already announced significant changes loosening restrictions on gatherings that go into effect April 15. The changes come after infection rates have gone down in the state. But the court stressed in its opinion that such changes while a dispute is on appeal does not necessarily make the case moot.
In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, California prohibited at home gatherings in counties hard hit by the pandemic and limited those gatherings elsewhere to no more than three households. The restrictions were challenged by two Christian pastors who wanted to hold Bible studies, prayer meetings and other services in their home.
The court said California allows people to gather from more than three households in hair salons, retail stores, movie theaters and restaurants. Given that, the justices said, the state would need to show that it is more dangerous for people to gather in homes for religious services than in those other places.
While conservatives hold a 6-3 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts dissented, joining liberal Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.
“California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households,” Justice Kagan wrote in the dissent. “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 – and thus unlike at-home secular gatherings, the obvious comparator here.”
“And (the majority) once more commands California to ignore its experts’ scientific findings, thus impairing the State’s effort to address a public health emergency.”