SCOTUS Rules in Favor of Churches Challenging California’s Restrictions on Worship Services

December 18, 2020
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by Jorge Gomez • 5 min read

Recently, in response to a challenge by Harvest Rock Church in California, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a federal district court order that upheld Gov. Gavin Newsom’s current restrictions on indoor worship services.

The justices sent the dispute back to the lower court with instructions to reconsider the case in light of the Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 decision rejecting restrictions on prayer services in New York.

According to the nation’s highest court:

“The September 2 order of the United States District Court for the Central District of California is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit with instructions to remand to the District Court for further consideration in light of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo.”

So, let’s take it back to the Big Apple when, back in November, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Catholic Diocese, which temporarily blocked COVID-19 restrictions on houses of worship, citing:

“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.” 

As you may recall from a previous FLI Insider article, both the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, along with Agudath Israel of America, had earlier sued N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo over his executive order that restricted the number of people gathering for worship in “Red Zones” at 10 people, and those gathering in “Orange Zones” at 25 people.

In its opinion, the Court stated, “These regulations cannot be viewed as neutral. They are far more restrictive than any COVID-related regulations that have previously come before the Court…and are far more severe than has been shown to be required.”

If that alone didn’t send a message to California officials, the Court added a poignant point-of-fact stating that it sees no evidence of outbreaks in Catholic churches or Jewish synagogues, both of which have faithfully followed strict CDC health guidelines since they reopened.

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 From NY Zones to California Tiers

Similar to New York’s red, orange and yellow “zones”, California designates and strictly caps the numbers of people permitted to gather in places using a tiered system.

According to Harvest Rock Church representatives, “Tier 1” mandates mean that “indoor worship services are completely prohibited for 99.1% of Californians.” Beyond these forty-one primary counties, other counties throughout the state maintain similar strict caps, as well.

Harvest argued, however, that under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, Newsom’s order is illegal not only for restricting the size of its gatherings, but also in treating the church differently as compared to non-religious groups and activities, something our legal experts have discussed at length for months.

What’s more, the church cited precedent surrounding the Establishment Clause, arguing that the government cannot “force or influence a person to or remain away from church against his will,” and that imposing criminal penalties on people will force people to stop going to houses of worship.

But the Court’s December 3rd rejection serves as a warning to federal judges in Los Angeles to reconsider Gov. Newsom’s order throughout the state, implying that the current ban on indoor services is likely to be canceled moving forward.

Cali Seeing the Light?

It appears as though judges in California may be starting to see the light, which could bring a bright new chapter in this seemingly never-ending “crisis” over constitutional rights— especially religious liberty—during the pandemic.

Consider back in May, it was Chief Justice John Roberts, in casting the deciding vote against a challenge to Gov. Newsom’s restrictions that limited indoor church gatherings to 100, who warned judges to be wary of “second-guessing” state and local officials who are trying to restrain the pandemic.

Well, times certainly have changed since then. And hopefully for the better, especially considering that the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett created a conservative majority on the nation’s high court, one that we’re already seeing bear fruit with recent rulings in favor of religious liberty.

Very likely, we’ll soon learn how the nation’s high court rules on additional religious gatherings, namely those for faith-based K-!2 schools being represented by First Liberty in Kentucky.

Until then, First Liberty’s ongoing fight for religious freedom remains as essential as ever.

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