The US Supreme Court on Thursday delivered a blow to California Governor Gavin Newsom’s pandemic-related ban on indoor religious services, siding with a church that defied the policy and challenged it as unconstitutional religious discrimination.
The decision followed a similar action by the justices on November 25 that backed Christian and Jewish houses of worship that challenged New York state restrictions in coronavirus hot spots.
The justices, with no noted dissents, set aside a lower court ruling that rejected a challenge to Newsom’s policy by Harvest Rock Church Inc, which has several campuses in the state, and Harvest International Ministries Inc, an association of churches. Both are based in Pasadena, a city in Los Angeles County.
“Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court provides great relief for churches and places of worship,” Mat Staver an attorney Representing churches in California told the religious news site CBN news. “The final days of Governor Gavin Newsom’s ‘colour-coded executive edicts’ banning worship are numbered and coming to an end. It is past time to end these unconstitutional restrictions on places of worship,” Staver said.
The justices directed the lower court to reconsider the case in light of their ruling in the New York case.
Citing court papers, CNN reported that California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said that he recognised that current restrictions interfere with “legitimate interest in participating in indoor worship service”
“At present, however, that temporary interference is justified by the State’s interest in limiting the transmission of COVID-19 through tailored, evidence-based policies that are proportional to the degree of risk posed by particular activities,” Becerra said.
California’s pandemic-related restrictions have evolved throughout the year. Newsom, a Democrat, initially ordered houses of worship to be closed completely in March as part of a broad stay-at-home directive. Some restrictions were lifted in the spring, but new curbs were introduced in July after a surge in cases, which was when Harvest Rock Church first sued.
The state’s current plan imposed county-specific limits based on the number of COVID-19 cases. Under the policy, houses of worship in the worst-hit areas could not hold indoor gatherings but could do so outdoors. In other counties, houses of worship could have indoor events with capacity restrictions.
The state imposed similar restrictions on what it called comparable businesses and activities such as museums, movie theatres and restaurants that also draw crowds of people.
In the New York case, the justices said the restrictions “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment” in part by allowing various businesses to operate indoors without the same occupancy restrictions.