Monday, May 25, 2020

9th Circuit: Church Loses Challenge To California COVID-19 Order

In South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, (9th Cir., May 22, 2020), the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, refused to enjoin California's and San Diego County's COVID-19 orders as they apply to in-person religious services. The majority, in a brief opinion, said in part:
Where state action does not “infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation” and does not “in a selective manner impose burdens only on conduct motivated by religious belief,” it does not violate the First Amendment. See Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 533, 543 (1993). We’re dealing here with a highly contagious and often fatal disease for which there presently is no known cure. In the words of Justice Robert Jackson, if a “[c]ourt does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.” Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 37 (1949) (Jackson, J., dissenting).
Judge Collins filed a lengthy dissent, saying in part:
By explicitly and categorically assigning all in-person “religious services” to a future Phase 3—without any express regard to the number of attendees, the size of the space, or the safety protocols followed in such services -- the State’s Reopening Plan undeniably “discriminate[s] on its face” against “religious conduct.”...
Even if the Reopening Plan were not facially discriminatory, it would still fail Lukumi’s additional requirement that the restrictions be “of general applicability.” 508 U.S. at 531.
Under California’s approach—in which an individual can leave the home only for the enumerated purposes specified by the State—these categories of authorized activities provide the operative rules that govern one’s conduct. While the resulting highly reticulated patchwork of designated activities and accompanying guidelines may make sense from a public health standpoint, there is no denying that this amalgam of rules is the very antithesis of a “generally applicable” prohibition. The State is continually making judgments, at the margins, to decide what additional activities its residents may and may not engage in, and thus far, “religious services” have not made the cut. I am at a loss to understand how the State’s current maze of regulations can be deemed “generally applicable.”
ABC News reports on the decision. The church filed an emergency application for an injunction (full text) with the U.S. Supreme Court.