US Supreme Court: California’s Limit on Home Religious Gatherings Is Too Strict
‘Where the government permits other activities to proceed with precautions, it must show that the religious exercise at issue is more dangerous than those activities even when the same precautions are applied,’ the Supreme Court said in the 5-4 decision.
WASHINGTON — California’s coronavirus restrictions on home-based religious gatherings like Bible studies, worship and prayer meetings were more strict than the Constitution allows, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a 5-4 court order late Friday.
Citing an appeals-court decision in a different case, the unsigned majority’s court order said the state cannot “assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work.”
California had said its restrictions on social gatherings was “entirely neutral.” Its current coronavirus mitigation rules have limited indoor social gatherings to no more than three households, and attendees must wear masks and keep physical distance from each other.
These rules were challenged by Rev. Jeremy Wong and Karen Busch, two residents of Santa Clara County, in the San Francisco Bay area. They wanted to host small, in-person Bible studies in their homes, The Associated Press said. In the case known as Tandon v. Newsom, they objected that the limits interfered with their free exercise of religion.
“There is zero evidence that an indoor Bible study is riskier than a trip to the movies, dinner in a restaurant, a workout in a gym or a gathering with dozens of friends at a winery, brewery, distillery or bowling alley,” the plaintiffs said in their appeal to the Supreme Court, The New York Times reported.
The Supreme Court’s order critiqued the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, saying, “instead of requiring the state to explain why it could not safely permit at-home worshippers to gather in larger numbers while using precautions used in secular activities, the 9th Circuit erroneously declared that such measures might not ‘translate readily’ to the home.”
The order faulted the appellate court’s series of decisions on California rules.
“This is the fifth time the [Supreme] Court has summarily rejected the 9th Circuit’s analysis of California’s COVID restrictions on religious exercise,” said the order. “It is unsurprising that such litigants are entitled to relief.”
“California’s Blueprint System contains myriad exceptions and accommodations for comparable activities, thus requiring the application of strict scrutiny,” the Supreme Court said. Under this standard, the state must pursue its interest through laws that are “narrowly tailored.”
David Cortman, senior counsel and vice president of U.S. litigation with the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group, welcomed the decision.
“With this fifth rejection of California’s COVID-19 restrictions on religious exercise, the Supreme Court has made abundantly clear that the government has a duty to respect the First Amendment in this context and many others,” Cortman said April 10.
“As the court explained, the government can’t single out religious activities for harsher treatment than non-religious ones,” he added. “The court also rejected the idea that such unfair treatment is okay, in this instance, because people gathering for religious purposes in homes somehow can’t be trusted to take the same precautions as people do in other places.”
The court order did draw disagreement from Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and a written dissent from Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
“California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households. If the state also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment,” Kagan said. “And the state does exactly that: It has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike.”
Kagan objected to claims that in-home religious gatherings should be treated “the same as hardware stores and hair salons.” She said that “the law does not require that the state equally treat apples and watermelons.”
The court majority however, said comparable secular activities treated “more favorably than at-home religious exercise” under California rules included private suites at sporting events and concerts as well as indoor restaurant dining, where more than three households were allowed to gather.
“Where the government permits other activities to proceed with precautions, it must show that the religious exercise at issue is more dangerous than those activities even when the same precautions are applied,” the Supreme Court said.
Public-health officials have said anti-coronavirus health precautions for gatherings include limited attendance capacity, physical distance between households, the use of face coverings or masks, and good hand hygiene. Good ventilation for indoor gatherings has also been stressed.