On Friday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling on religious freedom that could be another blow to California Democrat Governor Gavin Newsom as he faces a recall effort. The Court ordered Santa Clara County to allow churches to hold indoor worship services.
Last week, five churches in the county challenged the county’s public health orders which ban indoor church services, asking the Ninth Circuit for an emergency stay. When that effort failed, the churches applied for an emergency writ of injunction with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, as she is assigned to the West Coast for emergency motions. She told the county to issue a response and referred the case to the Supreme Court.
“The churches pointed to the Supreme Court’s recent rulings in two cases – one lifting New York’s COVID-related limits on attendance at worship services and the other granting requests by southern California churches to resume indoor worship services – to support their contention that the Santa Clara County order must also fall,” Amy Howe noted at SCOTUSblog.
The justices ruled the county’s restrictions should be put on hold until the appeals process was over, writing:
The application for injunctive relief presented to Justice Kagan and by her referred to the Court is granted pending disposition of the appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari, if such writ is timely sought. The Ninth Circuit’s failure to grant relief was erroneous. This outcome is clearly dictated by this Court’s decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom.
Nebraska GOP senator Ben Sasse responded to the ruling, asserting, “Gavin Newsom can get a reservation at the French Laundry but he can’t rewrite the First Amendment. States that intentionally target religious liberty have been slapped down by the courts again and again. The message is clear: This pandemic doesn’t rewrite the Constitution,” as The Washington Free Beacon reported.
In February, the Court ruled for South Bay United Pentecostal Church of San Diego after lower courts had ruled that California’s restrictions on worship, singing, and chanting in churches appeared to be legally justified, the Los Angeles Times reported. The Daily Wire reported on February 7:
Under California’s blueprint for reopening, counties in the “purple-tier” status cannot hold indoor church service. According to state data, more than 40 million people live in purple-tier counties. Under the court decision, California can limit church capacity at up to 25%. However, within the court’s majority, the justices differed as to the extent California appears to have discriminated against houses of worship.
Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas argued in a concurring opinion that the 25% threshold should be scrapped as well, along with the limits on singing. Justice Samuel Alito argued for giving the state 30 days to prove such restrictions necessary, and if they couldn’t, the attendance and singing restrictions would be dropped entirely.