Supreme Court Strikes Down Gavin Newsom’s Lockdown Ban on Indoor Church Services

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Feb 6, 2021   |   10:49AM   |   Washington, DC

Late last night the Supreme Court issued an injunction stopping California’s ban on indoor worship in churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship, that it claimed were dangerous because of the coronavirus.

The Court ruled in two cases, South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom and Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom. Both churches sued California Governor Gavin Newsom, challenging the state’s total ban on indoor worship services—the most extreme in the nation—which targeted churches for closure while allowing non-essential retail stores such as Macy’s to open to hundreds of customers, as well as hair salons, nail salons, and Hollywood soundstages.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court enjoined California from enforcing the total ban on worship in the “Blueprint’s” Tier 1 pending disposition of the case at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and a petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court. A majority held that instead of the total ban, California may impose a 25 percent building capacity limit in Tier 1.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “federal courts owe significant deference to politically accountable officials” when it comes to public health restrictions, but he said deference “has its limits.”

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Roberts wrote that California’s determination “that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero—appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.”

He went on to state that the Constitution “entrusts the protection of the people’s rights to the Judiciary—not despite judges being shielded by life tenure, … but because they are. Deference, though broad, has its limits.”

The Justices wrote several opinions in addition to the Court’s order. Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, pointing out that California was the only state in the country with a complete ban on indoor worship. Justice Gorsuch also stated that “California no longer asks its movie studios, malls, and manicurists to wait.”

“As this crisis enters its second year—and hovers over a second Lent, a second Passover, and a second Ramadan—it is too late for the State to defend extreme measures with claims of temporary exigency, if it ever could,” Gorsuch wrote.

The court left the ban on singing and chanting in place but Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, and Alito would have overturned that ban as well. While the Court wrote several times that the churches may present additional evidence of the discriminatory treatment on the singing and chanting ban, Justice Gorsuch noted that California exempts music and TV production for the entertainment industry where singing is permitted. He noted that California’s scheme is confusing, and that on this record, he would hold that against the state and enjoin the ban on singing and chanting in places of worship.

“Drafting narrowly tailored regulations can be difficult. But 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,” Gorsuch continued.

Justice Gorsuch, joined by Thomas and Alito, wrote: “Today’s order should have been needless; the lower courts in these cases should have followed the extensive guidance this Court already gave.”

Previously, some states imposed numerical caps on indoor worship, regardless of the size of the house of worship, while allowing businesses to open to a percentage of their capacity. On the night before Thanksgiving 2020, the Supreme Court struck down New York Governor Cuomo’s 10- and 25-person caps on religious worship. The Supreme Court’s decision today found California’s policies in violation of precedent set in Agudath Israel and its companion case, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo.

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “Finally, Governor Gavin Newsom’s total ban on worship has come to an end. A pandemic is no excuse for violating the Constitution. Until today, California imposed the most severe restrictions on places of worship. Not anymore. We will continue to press this case until religious freedom is totally restored.”

“California had no right to declare itself a religion-free zone,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “When every other state in the country has figured out a way to both allow worship and protect the public health, maybe you are doing it wrong. We are glad this extreme violation of our first freedom has finally come to an end.”

“When it comes to First Amendment rights, courts should not rubber-stamp public health restrictions,” added Rassbach. “That is especially so as we near the one-year anniversary of the lockdown orders. Instead, courts should carefully balance the right to worship and public health.”