Saturday, February 06, 2021

Supreme Court Enjoins, Pending Appeal, California's Total Ban On Indoor Worship Services

Yesterday, in another decision on the Court's so-called "shadow docket", the U.S. Supreme Court in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, (US Sup. Ct., Feb. 5, 2021), enjoined while a petition for certiorari is pending a portion of California's restrictions on indoor worship services. Last month, the 9th Circuit upheld the restrictions. Now the Supreme Court temporarily enjoined enforcement of the state's total ban on indoor worship services in areas of the highest COVID-19 infection ("Tier I"). However it refused to enjoin the state's 25% capacity limits on worship services in Tier I, and refused to enjoin its ban on singing and chanting during services. The Court, in its unsigned order, added:

This order is without prejudice to the applicants presenting new evidence to the District Court that the State is not applying the percentage capacity limitations or the prohibition on singing and chanting in a generally applicable manner.

Chief Justice Roberts filed a brief concurring statement, saying in part:

[F]ederal courts owe significant deference to politically accountable officials with the “background, competence, and expertise to assess public health.”... At the same time, the State’s present determination—that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero—appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.

Justice Barrett, joined by Justice Kavanaugh, filed a brief concurring opinion. 

Justices Thomas, Gorsuch and Alito would also have enjoined the capacity limits and the ban on singing and chanting. However Justice Alito would have postponed the injunction on capacity limits for 30 days to give the state an opportunity to show that these limits are narrowly drawn to reduce COVID spread to the same extent as limits on other essential activities. Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, filed an opinion explaining their position, saying in part:

Since the arrival of COVID–19, California has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses....

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. The whole point of strict scrutiny is to test the government’s assertions, and our precedents make plain that it has always been a demanding and rarely satisfied standard....

Drafting narrowly tailored regulations can be difficult. But if Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry.

Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented, saying in part:

California’s response to the COVID pandemic satisfies that neutrality rule by regulating worship services the same as other activities “where large groups of people [come together] in close proximity for extended periods of time.”... The restricted activities include attending a worship service or political meeting; going to a lecture, movie, play, or concert; and frequenting a restaurant, winery, or bar. So the activities are both religious and secular—and many of the secular gatherings, too, are constitutionally protected....

The Court has decided that the State must exempt worship services from the strictest aspect of its regulation of public gatherings. No one can know, from the Court’s 19-line order, exactly why: Is it that the Court does not believe the science, or does it think even the best science must give way? In any event, the result is clear: The State may not treat worship services like activities found to pose a comparable COVID risk, such as political meetings or lectures. Instead, the State must treat this one communal gathering like activities thought to pose a much lesser COVID risk, such as running in and out of a hardware store. In thus ordering the State to change its public health policy, the Court forgets what a neutrality rule demands. The Court insists on treating unlike cases, not like ones, equivalently.

Vox reports on the decision, with particular attention to Justice Barrett's opinion-- her first signed opinion since joining the Court.