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In 5-4 Decision, Supreme Court Dismisses California Church's Appeal to End Restrictions on Religious Services

05-30-2020
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ABOVE:  Dr. Larry Caplin, CEO of DOCS Health and a healthcare logistics expert, recently appeared on CBN News's Faith Nation to discuss how America can safely reopen businesses and churches. Faith Nation is seen weeknights on the CBN News Channel.  For a programming schedule, click here.

The United States Supreme Court denied the request from a California church to remove restrictions on large church gatherings during the pandemic.

In a 5-4 decision on Friday, the justices ruled in favor of California Gov. Gavin Newsom's guidelines on in-person worship services, The Associated Press reports.

The case was brought about by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, CA, who argues that these restrictions violate their religious freedom. 

The guidelines state that places of worship must "limit attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower."

To some, that limit is way too restrictive in a state that's home to many mega-churches with congregations numbering in the thousands, even tens of thousands.  And they say that it's a limit only on religious gatherings.

But standing with the majority in the 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts argued, "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.

Disagreeing with Roberts that houses of worship are definitely different than grocery stores, banks, and laundromats. dissenter Justice Brett Kavanaugh did lump all those together.  Kavanaugh wrote that the limitation "discriminates against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses. Such discrimination violates the First Amendment."

"The church and its congregants simply want to be treated equally to comparable secular businesses. California already trusts its residents and any number of businesses to adhere to proper social distancing and hygiene practices," Justice Kavanaugh added.  He also asked, “Assuming all of the same precautions are taken, why can someone safely walk down a grocery store aisle but not a pew?"

"The church in this case—and, indeed, the vast majority of churches—agreed to abide by the same social distancing and hygiene standards set for others," said Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, reacting to the Court's ruling.  "The church simply asked to be treated the same as comparable secular businesses, which is the bare minimum that the First Amendment’s free exercise clause requires."

Also weighing in was Chief Counsel of First Liberty Institute Kelly Shackelford, who remarked, “Treating churches unequally is wrong. The Constitution specifically protects the free exercise of religion, it does not speak for the defense of laundromats. Churches and houses of worship just want to be treated equally and trusted to adhere to proper social distancing and hygiene practices just like they do when they go about the rest of their daily lives in permitted social settings.”

“We support government leaders’ efforts to prioritize the public’s health and safety, but people of faith should be free to assemble as others are," opined Tucker.  "In addition to California, many states are implementing rules that are inconsistent and burdensome to religious groups. If people can be trusted to comply with social distancing and other health guidelines at offices, restaurants, and factories, there is no reason they cannot be trusted in religious settings.”

Justice Kavanaugh in opposing the 5-4 decision by the high court wrote, "The State also has substantial room to draw lines, especially in an emergency. But as relevant here, the Constitution imposes one key restriction on that line-drawing: The State may not discriminate against religion.  In sum, California’s 25% occupancy cap on religious worship services indisputably discriminates against religion, and such discrimination violates the First Amendment."

Chief Justice Roberts disagreed with that, stating, "The notion that it is 'indisputably clear' that the Government’s limitations are unconstitutional seems quite improbable."

He also suggested this is not really a matter for judges and justices to decide, writing, "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.' Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11, 38 (1905). When those officials 'undertake[ ] to act in areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties,' their latitude 'must be especially broad.' Marshall v. United States, 414 U. S. 417, 427 (1974). 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."

'Millions of Americans Embrace Worship as an Essential Part of Life'

In reacting to some states forbidding religious services or limiting them in some cases to a maximum of 10 attendees, President Trump on May 22nd declared houses of worship are "essential" and demanded governors let worshippers return to in-person services "right now," as Trump put it.

He also stated, "The people are demanding to go to church and synagogue, go to their mosque.  Millions of Americans embrace worship as an essential part of life."

"This cap on church attendees that is not enforced against any other human activities or gatherings in San Diego or throughout California is odious and abhorrent, devoid of the slightest justification as applied only to religious practice," said Tom Brejcha, chief counsel for the Thomas More Society and one of the South Bay United Pentecostal Church's attorneys.

He added, "This bias against people of faith betrays the falsity of proclamations that 'churches are now open,' as government officials seem to deem religious congregants and their shepherds alone as unworthy of trust while opening up manufacturing and retail stores without any comparable caps on attendance."  

Dr. Russell Moore, the president of the convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, commented on Saturday about the US Supreme Court's decision to deny South Bay United Pentecostal Church's request.

"I wish the Supreme Court had acted to bring more constitutional clarity to this pressing question," Moore said. "There is no dispute that the government has a compelling interest in restricting assemblies during times of pandemic, but several states, including Minnesota, California, and Nevada, have pursued policies that are inconsistent, incoherent, and not neutral toward religious gatherings as opposed to non-religious gatherings. 

“States should set their policies according to the behaviors that can and cannot happen safely, the numbers of people that can be gathered, not on whether the assembly is a church or not a church, and they should apply those standards equally and neutrally. This pandemic is a perilous time. We need to emerge from it with both our public safety and our First Amendment intact. We can do that, but only if elected officials and the courts take seriously the matters both of public health and of constitutional freedoms,” he added.

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