A pair of California churches have been fighting for weeks against the state’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, and his tight restrictions on worship services amid the coronavirus pandemic. Now, they’ve just scored a big win.
In a bombshell decision Friday, the Supreme Court handed down a partial victory to both South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Harvest Rock Church that will allow the facilities to open their doors to at least some worshippers again despite ongoing concerns over COVID-19, the Washington Examiner reported.
The ruling came down 6–3, according to the Sacramento Bee, with Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer all dissenting.
“The record is uncertain”
At issue was a total ban on indoor religious services put in place as part of California’s tiered reopening system.
In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts explained that the court had determined California couldn’t legally ban indoor worship services outright, but said the state could institute reasonable capacity limitations in light of legitimate concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
According to the Examiner, the ruling means even churches in “the most restricted regions” of the state “will be able to hold services indoors at 25% capacity.”
The high court did not, however, strike down a ban on singing and chanting at indoor services, saying the churches had failed to provide sufficient evidence that the prohibition unfairly targeted houses of worship.
“Of course, if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote in her own concurring opinion. “But the record is uncertain and the decisions below unfortunately shed little light on the issue.”
“We have a duty”
Breaking with their more moderate colleagues, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas indicated they’d have granted the churches their requests on all counts, the Examiner noted.
In a scathing opinion of his own, Gorsuch skewered California for being the only state to impose such “stringent regulations on religious institutions,” noting that while the pandemic is a serious public health crisis, the Constitution still applies.
“Of course we are not scientists, but neither may we abandon the field when government officials with experts in tow seek to infringe a constitutionally protected liberty,” Gorsuch wrote.
“Even in times of crisis — perhaps especially in times of crisis — we have a duty to hold governments to the Constitution,” he declared.