Saturday, May 30, 2020

US Supreme Court, 5-4, Refuses To Enjoin California's Limits On Worship Services

On Friday night, by a vote of 5-4, the U.S. Supreme Court refused a church’s request to enjoin application to it of California’s COVID-19 restrictions that limit attendance at religious worship services to 25% of building capacity or 100 attendees.  In South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, (US Sup. Ct., May 29, 2020), Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor voted to deny the injunction without writing an opinion. Chief Justice Roberts concurred in denying the injunction, filing a 2-page opinion explaining his vote. He said in part:
Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 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. And the Order exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks, and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.
Justice Kavanaugh filed a 3-page dissenting opinion which was joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, saying in part:
The Church and its congregants simply want to be treated equally to comparable secular businesses. California already trusts its residents and any number of businesses to adhere to proper social distancing and hygiene practices. The State cannot “assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work or go about the rest of their daily lives in permitted social settings”…
Justice Alito dissented without filing or joining an opinion.

Earlier in the day, the Court had issued a brief order similarly denying an injunction against Illinois restrictions on worship services, but here because the challenged Illinois restrictions had expired the day before.. Full text of order in Elim Romanian Church v. Pritzker, (US Sup. Ct., May 29, 2020). SCOTUSblog reports on the decisions.