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US Supreme Court rejects challenge to California restrictions on church gatherings

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Posted at 9:16 AM, May 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-30 12:20:46-04

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (CNS) -- A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 to uphold restrictions imposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on religious gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic and denied an injunction sought by a Chula Vista church.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts voted with liberal justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer to deny an injunction sought by South Bay United Pentecostal Church and its senior pastor, Bishop Arthur Hodges III that alleged state and local elected officials have "intentionally denigrated California churches and pastors and people of faith by relegating them to third-class citizenship."

The ruling noted that "Although California's guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time. And the order exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks, and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods."

The majority opinion noted: "The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement. Our Constitution principally entrusts `[t]he safety and the health of the people' to the politically accountable officials of the states' to guard and protect."

Those officials are given broad latitude when acting in areas with medical and scientific uncertainties, the majority said.

"Where those broad limits are not exceeded, they should not be subject to second-guessing by an 'unelected federal judiciary,' which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people," according to the majority opinion.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote the dissenting opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch.

"I would grant the church's requested temporary injunction because California's latest safety guidelines discriminate against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses. Such discrimination violates the First Amendment," according to the opinion.

Kavanaugh noted new guidelines limiting attendance at religious worship services to 25% of building capacity or 100 attendees, whichever is lower, are also unconstitutional.

"The basic constitutional problem is that comparable secular businesses are not subject to a 25% occupancy cap, including factories, offices, supermarkets, restaurants, retail stores, pharmacies, shopping malls, pet grooming shops, bookstores, florists, hair salons, and cannabis dispensaries," according to the dissenting opinion.

Justice Samuel A. Alito also voted in the minority.

The South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Hodges sued Newsom and a host of other state and local officials earlier this month for placing churches and other places of worship under Stage 3 of California's reopening plan, which also includes movie theaters, salons and gyms.

On May 22, U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant denied the request, saying the state's order placed churches under Stage 3 because "the services involve people sitting together in a closed environment for long periods of time," rather than any motivation against religion.

Bashant noted that similar restrictions have been placed on a variety of secular industries and that alternatives such as drive-in and remote services remain in place for people to engage in worship activities.

The church appealed the decision the following day, reiterating its arguments that California reopened certain sectors, such as manufacturing and warehouses, under Stage 2 in an arbitrary fashion that is dismissive of the religious rights of Californians.

"California has decided that it can prioritize reopening the economy by opening all factories -- even `non-essential' ones -- but not churches," the church's appeal states. "This is because, in Governor Newsom's view, places of worship provide a `low reward' to the people of California. This unconstitutional denigration of people of faith cannot continue."

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the California restrictions on May 22, writing, "We conclude that appellants have not demonstrated a sufficient likelihood of success on appeal. Where state action does not infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation and does not 'in a selective manner impose burdens only on conduct motivated by religious belief,' it does not violate the First Amendment."

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice sent Newsom a letter alleging his reopening plan is discriminatory against places of worship.

"Religious gatherings may not be singled out for unequal treatment compared to other nonreligious gatherings that have the same effect on the government's public health interests, absent the most compelling reasons," the letter authored by Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband says.

The letter references the South Bay United case, as well as the case of Abiding Places Ministries in Campo, which also sought to reopen for in- person services and was likewise denied by Bashant. The letter says neither court decision addresses what distinguishes worship services from the reopenings of schools, restaurants or factories under Stage 2.

"We believe that the Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the Reopening Plan," Dreiband wrote.

Attorney Charles LiMandri, serving as Special Counsel to the Thomas More Society on behalf of the South Bay United Pentecostal Church, responded to the late-night ruling on Saturday:

"The disappointing ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court was a close 5-4 vote, based on the very high standards required for obtaining an emergency injunction on appeal. This case is far from over. Our next appellate brief is due in the Ninth Circuit on June 5. If it is necessary to go back up to the U.S. Supreme Court after the Ninth Circuit rules again, we will benefit from a much more favorable standard. We are hopeful that fact would also lead to a better result for religious liberty."