A divided Supreme Court blocked California’s Covid-related ban on indoor worship services in a late-night order Friday but allowed other restrictions affecting houses of worship to remain in place.
The justices fractured in the two cases — the latest to come before the court pitting religious groups against city and state officials seeking to stop the spread of the pandemic.
California has instituted a tiered system that resulted in a total ban on indoor services in some counties. The court blocked the prohibition on indoor worship services in the most hardly hit areas, but allowed some limitations based on capacity percentages to stay in place as well as a prohibition on singing and chanting during indoor services.
In all, the justices penned four separate opinions. On one side of the spectrum, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch would have granted the churches the full relief they sought, while the three liberal justices — Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor — would have sided with the state.
“Federal courts owe significant deference to politically accountable officials,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, explaining his vote to grant partial relief to the churches.
He added that the state’s determination that no one could safely worship in the “most cavernous cathedral” reflected an “insufficient appreciation” for the interests at stake. “Deference, though broad, has its limits,” Roberts said.
Writing passionately for the liberals, Kagan said that the “justices on this Court are not scientists, nor do we know much about public health policy.”
She said that the majority had displaced the judgments of experts about “how to respond to a raging pandemic” and weakened California’s restrictions on public gatherings. She said that “California’s choices make good sense” and that the state is “desperately trying to slow the spread of a deadly disease.”
“In the worst public health crisis in a century, this foray into armchair epidemiology cannot end well,” she said.
The cases brought by Harvest Rock Church and South Bay United Pentecostal Church challenged California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy,” which established a framework system. Counties are assigned one of four tiers ranging from “widespread” (tier 1) to “minimal” (tier 4.) Under the first tier, indoor gatherings for certain businesses and activities are prohibited.
In court papers lawyers for Harvest Rock, represented by Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel argued that the “Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.” He said that some secular gatherings such as those in grocery stores, laundromats and malls were exempted from the restrictions.
Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general who is President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services, defended the restrictions which he called “carefully structured” and a “proportionate response” to unprecedented public health threats.
This story has been updated with additional information from the ruling.