Supreme Court rejects request from California church to block restrictions on in-person services
Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberals on the bench, and wrote separately to explain his vote.
“Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Roberts wrote.
“Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time,” he said.
The thrust to reopen churches has become one of the latest debates in the Covid-19 culture wars. As states across the country have been gradually reopening their cities, some churches have argued that they are being treated differently than other businesses or groups.
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh would have granted the church’s request.
Kavanaugh, writing for Thomas and Gorsuch, said the church would suffer “irreparable harm from not being able to hold services on Pentecost Sunday in a way that comparable secular businesses and persons can conduct their activities.”
South Bay United Pentecostal Church, represented by the Thomas More Society, challenged California’s policy reopening churches but limiting services to 25% capacity or a maximum of 100 people.
“Although curbing the pandemic is a laudable goal, those orders arbitrarily discriminate against places of worship in violation of their right to the Free Exercise of Religion under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” Thomas Brejcha of the Thomas More Society argued in court papers.
He said there was “no explanation” for the “arbitrary cap” and noted that there was no such limitation for others such as manufacturing and warehousing facilities.
They sought to have the restrictions lifted by Sunday — the Christian holy day of Pentecost.
Lawyers for the church said Saturday morning that they were disappointed to lose their emergency petition but will continue to fight in the lower courts.
“The disappointing ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court was a close 5-4 vote, based on the very high standards required for obtaining an emergency injunction on appeal,” said Charles LiMandri, serving as Special Counsel to the Thomas More Society.
“This case is far from over,” he said, noting the church will file briefs in a federal appeals court in early June.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra argued the policy “tracked recent guidance issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
He said the churches are not injured by the new guidance because while services normally bring in between 200 and 300 congregants, there is nothing that prevents them from “offering additional meeting times.”
“Indeed, while in-person religious services are now permitted, many other activities that are ‘most comparable’ in terms of COVID-transmission risk factors — ‘concerts, lectures, theatrical performances, or choir practices, in which groups of people gather together for extended periods’ — continue to be barred,” Becerra told the justices in court papers.
Roberts, in his separate opinion, stressed that Covid-19, has killed “thousands of people in California” and “more than 100,000 nationwide. “
“At this time, there is no known cure, no effective treatment, and no vaccine,” he said.
Earlier Friday night, the court declined a similar request from churches in Illinois after those restrictions had been lifted.
Last week, President Donald Trump called on governors to reopen religious institutions for services, even threatening to “override” governors if their states did not follow new guidance from the CDC.