SCOTUS rules against church challenge to California stay-at-home order

The Trump administration is not going to be too happy about a ruling issued by the U.S. Supreme court last week.

The Hill reports that in a 5–4 decision on Friday, the justices ruled that California’s stay-at-home order does not violate the religious freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. 

The tie-breaking vote, if you will, was that of Chief Justice John Roberts. Otherwise, the justices voted as expected, with conservative jurists Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch finding the order to be violative of the First Amendment.

Newsom’s order upheld

This particular case was initiated when the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California, brought a legal challenge to California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) stay-at-home order which halted in-person church gatherings as a preventative measure against the spread of the coronavirus.

The churchgoers argued, however, that the order violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment by infringing on their right to worship, and the conservative justices agreed.

Justice Kavanaugh wrote a dissenting opinion in which he took particular issue with Newsom’s recent concession that churches would not be permitted to operate at 25% capacity.

“California’s 25% occupancy cap on religious worship services indisputably discriminates against religion, and such discrimination violates the First Amendment,” he wrote.

Roberts, however, saw things differently, authoring a concurring opinion in which he opined that the restrictions placed on churches were not, in fact, discriminatory.

“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.”

Troubling outcome

In addition to the above ruling, the Supreme Court on Friday issued another opinion on Friday, this time denying the request of an Illinois church to lift that state’s restrictions on in-person church services, The Hill reported separately.

The Illinois case, however, was a bit different. By the time it reached the Supreme Court, it was actually moot because Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) had already removed the limitations, and that fact was what led to the outcome at the high court.

Still, the Supreme Court’s Friday ruling in the Calfornia case is worrisome for worshippers everywhere. The liberal justices, a group that more frequently seems to include Roberts, have effectively given their stamp of approval to a governor’s decision to dictate where and when Americans can practice their religion.

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