Supreme Court sides with California churches against state restrictions

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Supreme Court Dec. 3 said federal judges should take another look at pandemic limits on California churches in light of the high court’s recent decision to lift similar restrictions on congregations in New York.

For now, the unsigned order leaves the state restrictions on indoor worship in place, but it sends the challenge, issued by the California’s Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry, an apostolic Christian church in Pasadena, back to a lower court. This court will likely stop the state’s governor from prohibiting most indoor religious services.

This summer, California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom issued restrictions prohibiting most indoor religious services in California counties that have experienced a surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

Attorneys for Harvest Rock Church said these restrictions discriminated against religious institutions since the state allowed nonreligious entities to assemble with fewer restrictions.

“Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the court’s majority opinion said. “The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

In October, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled against Harvest Rock Church’s challenge to the governor’s restrictions that included a ban on singing and chanting in places of worship.

Newsom divided the state’s counties into four “tiers” — with Tier 1 being the area where the risk is highest and in-person services are banned. Los Angeles County, were Pasadena is located, is Tier 1. Restrictions in the other tiers vary with the level of coronavirus risk.

The Supreme Court, on Nov.25, lifted the pandemic restrictions on congregation sizes at houses of worship imposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, and two Orthodox Jewish synagogues in separate filings appealed to the nation’s high court, claiming the governor’s executive order violated their free exercise of religion and was particularly unwarranted during a time when area businesses were open.

The New York State Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, said the court’s 5-4 decision was “an important one for religious liberty.”

The decision was a reversal from a 5-4 decision the court issued in the summer when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was on the bench. The court then upheld Nevada’s limits on congregation sizes, denying a request by a Nevada church for permission to have larger gatherings, like those permitted in the state’s casinos, restaurants and other businesses.

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim

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