Supreme Court refuses to block California restrictions on religious services
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A divided U.S. Supreme Court refused Friday night to block restrictions on religious services in California.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. voted along with the court’s four liberals to keep the California restrictions in place. The restrictions limit attendance at worship services to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 people.
“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 in a concurring opinion that was not joined by the other justices in the majority.
“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,” Roberts said. “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.”
Roberts noted that more than 100,000 people have died from COVID-19 nationwide, and there is currently no known cure, no effective treatment and no vaccine. California placed temporary restrictions on public gatherings “to address this extraordinary health emergency,” he said.
“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,” Roberts said. “Our Constitution principally entrusts ‘the safety and the health of the people’ to the politically accountable officials of the states ‘to guard and protect.’ ”
When broad limits are not exceeded, restrictions “should not be subject to second-guessing” by judges, Roberts said. That is especially true when emergency injunctive relief is sought in an interim appeal in which a higher justification is needed for relief, Roberts said.
“The notion that it is ‘indisputably clear’ that the government’s limitations are unconstitutional seems quite improbable,” Roberts said.
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch. Justice Samuel Alito Jr. would also have granted the injunction, but he did not join Kavanaugh’s opinion.
Kavanaugh said California’s restrictions violate the First Amendment because they discriminate against places of worship while favoring comparable secular businesses.
“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 case, which names California Gov. Gavin Newsom, is South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom.
In a second case, the Supreme Court denied an injunction sought by an Illinois church. The denial had no dissents. Lawyers for the state argued that the case was moot because Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Thursday that he was lifting the 10-person limit on religious gatherings.
The Illinois case is Elim Romanian Church v. Pritzker.