Los Angeles, CA — Late Friday night, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of coronavirus restrictions on religious services in California in a 5-4 decision. A California church had argued that putting a limit on crowd size violates constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.
Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush nominee, sided with the four liberal justices to side with California’s legal argument that they had the right to shut down or limit religious services.
The court ruled in turning away a request from the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California. The church argued that limits on how many people can attend their services violate constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and had been seeking an order in time for services on Sunday. The church said it has crowds of 200 to 300 people for its services.
Roberts, the only one of the five to explain his vote, compared in-person church services to other forms of assembly. His conservative colleagues who dissented compared the services to secular businesses.
“Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Roberts wrote. “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.”
Writing for three of the four conservative justices who dissented, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh said California’s current 25% occupancy limit on churches amounted to “discrimination against religious worship services.”
“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,” Kavanaugh wrote.
The Supreme Court’s slim conservative majority, with Roberts in agreement, has come down on the side of religious liberty consistently in recent years.
In the next few weeks, the high court will decide if state funds can be used to help pay religious school tuition if employers with religious or moral objections can refuse to offer insurance coverage for contraceptives and if religious employers can sidestep job discrimination laws.
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