A divided U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to let indoor worship services resume at a group of suing churches, easing restrictions that officials said were needed to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The Friday night orders stopped short of abolishing the Covid restrictions altogether, saying the state could impose a 25% capacity cap at church services. The justices also let California continue to ban singing and chanting at indoor services.
Still, the orders marked a new display of the eagerness of the court’s conservative wing to protect religious rights even when officials say public health is at stake. The orders reinforce an earlier Supreme Court decision that blocked strict capacity limits in New York as violating constitutionally protected religious rights.
The newest justice,
“Of course, if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral,” Barrett wrote in a one-paragraph opinion joined by Justice
Under restrictions imposed in July by Governor
Like most of the country, California has been fighting a surge of Covid cases over the past three months. The state has recorded more than 3.2 million cases since the outbreak began almost a year ago, and more than 40,000 people have died.
The court’s three liberal justices --
“Justices of this court are not scientists,” Kagan wrote for the group. “Nor do we know much about public health policy. Yet today the court displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging pandemic.”
Writing for the group, Gorsuch said California had granted exemptions to Hollywood studios from Covid restrictions that apply elsewhere.
“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,” Gorsuch wrote.
The court as a whole didn’t explain its reasoning or lay out why it selected 25% as a permissible capacity cap for churches in tier 1 counties. In his opinion, Gorsuch said the state allows most retail stores to operate at 25% occupancy in tier 1 counties.
Though other churches might be able to take advantage of the orders, they apply directly only to the churches that sued -- South Bay United Pentecostal Church, which has a 600-seat sanctuary in Chula Vista; Harvest Rock Church, which seats 1,250 people in its Pasadena facility; and Harvest International Ministry, which says it has numerous member churches throughout the state.
(Updates with breakdown of court and excerpts from opinions starting in fourth paragraph.)
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