California To Revise Church Restrictions After Supreme Court Ruling

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California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) will revise COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on houses of worship following a Friday ruling at the Supreme Court, according to a statement from his office.

“We will continue to enforce the restrictions the Supreme Court left in place and, after reviewing the decision, we will issue revised guidelines for worship services to continue to protect the lives of Californians,” the governor’s press secretary, Daniel Lopez, said in a statement, reports KCRA.

The governor’s statement comes after the Supreme Court sided against California’s restrictions on houses of worship late Friday evening, ruling that the state could not prevent churches from holding indoor services due to the pandemic.

The 6-3 decision granted relief to South Bay United Pentecostal Church, of San Diego, after lower courts had ruled that California’s restrictions on worship, singing, and chanting in churches appeared to be legally justified, reports the Los Angeles Times. Under California’s blueprint for reopening, counties in the “purple-tier” status cannot hold indoor church service. According to state data, more than 40 million people live in purple-tier counties.

Under the court decision, California can limit church capacity at up to 25%. However, within the court’s majority, the justices differed as to the extent California appears to have discriminated against houses of worship.

Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas argued in a concurring opinion that the 25% threshold should be scrapped as well, along with the limits on singing. Justice Samuel Alito argued for giving the state 30 days to prove such restrictions necessary, and if they couldn’t, the attendance and singing restrictions would be dropped entirely.

On the other hand, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, in her first written opinion, with which Justice Brett Kavanaugh concurred, argued that the church hadn’t adequately shown the ban on singing was discriminatory toward churches. As such, wrote Barrett, a ban on singing and chanting in houses of worship could continue to legally remain in effect in the state, as the church hadn’t shown sufficient evidence that the rule wasn’t neutral toward them.

Three justices — Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor — deferred to the state in a dissent, accusing the majority of displacing the judgment of scientists, exceeding the role of the judiciary, and engaging in “armchair epidemiology” from the court.

Justices of this Court are not scientists. 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. The Court orders California to weaken its restrictions on public gatherings by making a special exception for worship services. The majority does so even though the State’s policies treat worship just as favorably as secular activities (including political assemblies) that, according to medical evidence, pose the same risk of COVID transmission. Under the Court’s injunction, the State must instead treat worship services like secular activities that pose a much lesser danger. That mandate defies our caselaw, exceeds our judicial role, and risks worsening the pandemic.

I fervently hope that the Court’s intervention will not worsen the Nation’s COVID crisis. But if this decision causes suffering, we will not pay. Our marble halls are now closed to the public, and our life tenure forever insulates us from responsibility for our errors. That would seem good reason to avoid disrupting a State’s pandemic response. But the Court forges ahead regardless, insisting that science-based policy yield to judicial edict.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, in a concurring opinion with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samual Alito, explicitly argued in one of the three majority opinions that he wasn’t claiming to be a scientist. Rather, Gorsuch argued that he was simply allowing the court to “test the government’s assertions” and not “abandon the field when government officials with experts in tow seek to infringe on constitutionally protected liberty.”

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