The Supreme Court on Thursday vacated a lower court’s decision not to block California from restricting indoor religious gatherings in areas hit hard by the pandemic and said it must rehear the case given the high court’s decision not to allow New York to impose similar restrictions.
The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on September 2 denied Harvest Rock International Ministry’s request to block California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order which imposes restrictions on areas with a high number of coronavirus cases, including limiting the number of people who can gather in places of worship.
Harvest Rock International Ministry sued Newsom on behalf of its 162 churches in California and argued the order violates the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion and has tighter regulations for places of worship than for essential businesses.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra argued that the restriction on indoor religious worship is permissible under the emergency executive order, is necessary to slow the spread of the virus, is temporary and that restrictions also apply to other indoor gatherings.
Becerra said California’s order differs from New York’s because it has a “tailored policy” with rules “proportional to the public health risks associated with each activity.”
In a 5-4 decision on November 25, the Supreme Court rejected New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order limiting the size of religious gatherings because of the pandemic. The court decided the restrictions should be “tailored” based on the risk and less restrictive rules could be enforced to minimize spread, such as limiting capacity based on the size of the house of worship. In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch noted that businesses deemed “essential,” including liquor stores and bike shops, have no size limits. “That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids,” he wrote. In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, wrote the majority decision was capricious. “Justices of this Court play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily,” Sotomayor wrote.