Supreme Court rebukes California’s strict coronavirus rules for churches
by CNA Staff
Washington D.C., Feb 6, 2021 / 11:04 am MT (CNA).- California’s strict coronavirus rules banning indoor worship were blocked and revised by a U.S. Supreme Court injunction late Friday night, drawing praise from figures like Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. He emphasized the importance of in-person religious gatherings and stressed that the Catholic Church is following “reasonable measures” to limit the epidemic.
“This is a very significant step forward for basic rights. This decision makes clear we can now return to worshiping safely indoors without risk of harassment from government officials,” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco said Feb. 6.
“As Christians we are members of a Church, which literally means an assembly of people coming together to worship God,” Cordileone continued. “This is our identity; it is in our very nature to gather in person to give honor and glory to God. And especially as Catholics we know that our worship cannot be livestreamed: there is no way to give Communion, or any of the other sacraments via the internet.”
California’s limits on religious services can vary by county, depending on infection rates. However, almost all of the state is in the Tier 1 ranking of viral spread, and this tier bars in-person worship indoors, the New York Times reports. Critics have said the ban wrongly singles out religious gatherings and is among the strictest in the country.
The Supreme Court’s unsigned order said that the total ban on indoor worship is unconstitutional. At most, the state may limit indoor capacity to 25% of normal. It left the ban on singing intact.
The injunction concerned two different challenges brought by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, both of which had sued California Gov. Gavin Newsom. The Chicago-based Thomas More Society, a legal group with a specialty in religious freedom cases, was representing the South Bay church.
Six justices favored the injunction, while three did not. Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
“California no longer asks its movie studios, malls, and manicurists to wait,” Gorsuch said. “As this crisis enters its second year—and hovers over a second Lent, a second Passover, and a second Ramadan—it is too late for the state to defend extreme measures with claims of temporary exigency, if it ever could. Drafting narrowly tailored regulations can be difficult. But 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 said lower courts should have followed the “extensive guidance” previously given by the Supreme Court. “This court made it abundantly clear that edicts like California’s fail strict scrutiny and violate the Constitution,” he said.
Chief Justice Roberts, writing in his own opinion, said that the state’s judgement that no adherents can safely worship even in “the most cavernous cathedral” is a view that “appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.” At the same time, he saw “no basis” to override the state ban on singing indoors, given conclusions that singing raises the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus.
Cordileone said the importance of in-person worship and in-person distribution of the sacraments is why he gave pastors permission at Christmas “to bring congregations indoors under the same conditions permitted indoor retail, if the weather or safety conditions required it.”
“The Supreme Court has now made it very clear to California government that permitting this is a fundamental right and the law of the land,” the archbishop said. “I trust and hope our state officials will appreciate the care we’ve taken all throughout this crisis to protect the public health with masks, social distancing and other reasonable measures.”
Justice Elana Kagan, however, wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. She accused the court of practicing “armchair epidemiology” in “the worst public health crisis in a century.”
“Justices of this court are not scientists,” she said. “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.”
Kagan argued that the court was not treating worship services “like activities found to pose a comparable COVID risk, such as political meetings or lectures.” Rather, it was wrongly treating this type of communal gathering “like activities thought to pose a much lesser COVID risk, such as running in and out of a hardware store.”
“The state is desperately trying to slow the spread of a deadly disease,” she said. “It has concluded, based on essentially undisputed epidemiological findings, that congregating together indoors poses a special threat of contagion. So it has devised regulations to curb attendance at those assemblies and — in the worst times — to force them outdoors.”
Kagan noted that the Supreme Court itself is conducting business by phone rather than in person because of the epidemic.
Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket religious liberty legal group, welcomed the decision.
“California had no right to declare itself a religion-free zone,” Rassbach said. “When every other state in the country has figured out a way to both allow worship and protect the public health, maybe you are doing it wrong. We are glad this extreme violation of our first freedom has finally come to an end.”
Becket had submitted an amicus brief in the case.
“When it comes to First Amendment rights, courts should not rubber-stamp public health restrictions,” said Rassbach. “That is especially so as we near the one-year anniversary of the lockdown orders. Instead, courts should carefully balance the right to worship and public health.”
Archbishop Cordileone called the ruling “a breath of fresh air in dark times.”
“I want to thank all those who have worked tirelessly to affirm that the worship of God is the most essential service of all, especially the leaders of South Bay and Harvest Rock churches. I’d like also to thank warmly those Catholics who joined me in standing up against abuses of power by signing the petition at FreeTheMass.com,” he said.
The Supreme Court’s injunction in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom cited its November ruling which overturned New York State’s 10- and 25-person limits on in-person worship. The Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn had challenged Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s strict limits.
That 5-4 decision said there are “many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services.”
“Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the court said. “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.”
In May 2020, in the early months of the epidemic, the court had rejected the South Bay church’s emergency appeal challenging the coronavirus rules. Since that decision, Justice Amy Coney Barrett has replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.