April 10, 2021
The Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote on Friday blocked another state Covid-19 restriction on religious services, with another late-night order, over protests from California officials that the limits affecting some Bible study sessions did not impinge on religious rights and were to be lifted within days.
The unsigned order for the high court majority issued shortly before midnight Friday, provided the clearest direction yet to lower courts that are hearing religious challenges to public-health measures.
The decision comes after a pastor in Santa Clara County challenged coronavirus-related restrictions against in-home gatherings, which prevented him from bringing congregants to his residence for prayer meetings and bible study.
The case before the justices involved California rules that in most of the state limit indoor social gatherings to no more than three households. Attendees are required to wear masks and physically distance from one another. Different restrictions apply to places including schools, grocery stores, and churches.
Public-health regulations are suspect “whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise,” the court said.
“It is no answer that a state treats some comparable secular businesses or other activities as poorly as or even less favorably than the religious exercise at issue.” Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and the three appointees of former President Donald Trump, Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, formed the majority.
“California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise, permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants to bring together more than three households at a time,” the court said. A lower court “did not conclude that those activities pose a lesser risk of transmission than applicants’ [the church’s] proposed religious exercise at home,” the justices said.
“The State has not shown that ‘public health would be imperiled’ by employing less restrictive measures” for private religious gatherings.
The court held the regulation of at-home religious gatherings violates the First Amendment’s protection for religious exercise.
The court has dealt with a string of cases in which religious groups have challenged coronavirus restrictions impacting worship services. While early in the pandemic the court sided with state officials over the objection of religious groups, that started to change following the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last September.
Read the court’s order by clicking here.