A divided Supreme Court late Friday night blocked California from imposing an outright ban on indoor church services during the pandemic, but the justices kept in place for the time being capacity limits and a ban on singing and chanting.
In a decision with four separate interpretations, a majority of conservative justices ruled that while the court normally defers to elected officials on public health that Gov. Gavin’s Newsom’s outright ban on church gatherings defied the Constitution.
“The State’s present determination—that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero—appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake,” Chief Justice John Robert wrote in his partially concurring statement.
The court’s three liberal judges dissented in granting a restraining order blocking California from imposing the ban. The Ruling amounted to another major win for religious freedom advocates, including the two churches who brought the challenge to the high court.
“Respondents are enjoined from enforcing the Blueprint’s Tier 1 prohibition on indoor worship services against the applicants pending disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari,” the court ruled. “The application is denied with respect to the percentage capacity limitations, and respondents are not enjoined from imposing a 25% capacity limitation on indoor worship services in Tier 1. The application is denied with respect to the prohibition on singing and chanting during indoor services.”
You can read the ruling here.
The justices said the churches could come back to the court if they could demonstrate “the State is not applying the percentage capacity limitations or the prohibition on singing and chanting in a generally applicable manner.”
Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch supported banning all the restrictions while the court’s newest member Amy Comey Barrett said there wasn’t enough evidence to determine whether the singing ban only impacted churches or affected all venues.
“It remains unclear whether the singing ban applies across the board (and thus constitutes a neutral and generally applicable law) or else favors certain sectors (and thus triggers more searching review),” Barrett wrote. “Of course, if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral. But the record is uncertain, and the decisions below unfortunately shed little light on the issue.”