Feb 6, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court: California can't ban indoor worship, but can keep 25% cap

Picture of the Supreme Court building surrounded by a metal wall to protect from riots
U.S. Supreme Court. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Supreme Court late Friday night lifted some restrictions on religious services in California spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, ruling the state cannot ban churches from holding indoor services, but can cap services at 25% capacity.

Details: The court ruled in two cases where churches sued the state over COVID-related restrictions, also declined to stop California from enforcing a ban on indoor singing and chanting.

The state of play: California moved to ban indoor services in areas designated as "Tier 1" last July, covering the majority of the state in response to high COVID case counts.

  • Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the court should largely defer to public health experts, but there are limits to that compliance.
  • Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, said the state supported the entertainment industry over religious services, writing: “If Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry.”
  • Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote that “if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral,” prompting a stricter review by courts. This was her first opinion, per the New York Times.
  • The three liberal justices dissented, saying they would have upheld California’s restrictions, and that ruling “risks worsening the pandemic." Justice Elena Kagan wrote: “Justices of this court are not scientists. Nor do we know much about public health policy. Yet today the court displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging pandemic."

Worth noting: The decision follows a similar ruling in November in which the court said that coronavirus restrictions imposed on New York's places of worship during the pandemic violated the First Amendment.

The bottom line: "[T]he decision ... represents a setback for [Gov. Gavin Newsom] at a time when COVID-19 deaths in California have topped 43,000," the Sacramento Bee writes.

Newsom's office said on Saturday that it will "continue to enforce the restrictions the Supreme Court left in place and, after reviewing the decision, we will issue revised guidelines for worship services to continue to protect the lives of Californians,” per AP.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with the statement from Newsom's office.

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