David G. Savage / Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court, citing religious freedom, has lifted another of California’s COVID-19 restrictions, ruling that the state cannot prevent people from gathering in homes for Bible study meetings and pray.
The court issued a 5-4 order around midnight Friday, barring the application of a state restriction that was scheduled to expire Thursday.
The court’s conservatives criticized the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for what they called another “flawed” ruling in favor of the state.
“This is the fifth time the court has summarily dismissed the 9th Circuit analysis of California’s COVID restrictions on religious exercise,” they said in Tandon vs. Newsom. In the most important of the decisions, the court said in early February that churches in California could open for indoor worship services, as long as they put limits on the number of people gathered.
On several occasions in these cases, judges in California and judges in Washington disagree on how to compare, for example, people meeting in a restaurant or barbershop with people meeting for a worship. The state has placed stricter limits on indoor gatherings such as in theaters or churches where people sit together for an hour or more while allowing retail stores where people come in and out to remain open.
In the latest order, conservative judges again noted that the state has opened state-owned enterprises while restricting religious gatherings. And they said state regulators violated First Amendment protection for the free exercise of religion “whenever they treat comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise.”
âCalifornia treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than home religious exercise, allowing hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts and indoor restaurants to bring together more than three households at a time, âthey said in an unsigned order. “The 9th Circuit did not find that these activities presented a lower risk of transmission than the religious exercise offered by the candidates at home.”
The ordinance spoke on behalf of Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said he would not have granted the emergency order, while Liberal Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
Kagan accused the majority of comparing “apples and watermelons” and concluding that they are essentially equal.
âThe 1st Amendment requires a state to treat religious conduct as well as the state to treat comparable secular conduct. Sometimes, finding the right secular analogue can raise difficult questions. But not today, “she wrote.” California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households. If the state also restricts all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied. to the 1st Amendment. And that’s exactly what the state is doing: it has passed a blanket restriction on home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular … California doesn’t need … to deal with Home church gatherings the same as hardware stores and barber shops – and so unlike secular home gatherings …. The law does not require the state to also treat apples and watermelons.
Last week, lawyers for several pastors in Santa Clara County asked the court for an emergency order lifting California’s limits on home gatherings.
âPastor Jeremy Wong and Karen Busch have held regular Bible studies, prayer meetings, and worship services in their homes – as have millions of other Christians in California who sincerely believe that getting together for a small group , ‘house church’ communion is just as essential to their faith as attending mass is for a Catholic, âthey declared in court. “Yet for over a year now California has completely banned or severely restricted these ‘gatherings’ and many others.”
A federal judge and the 9th Circuit Court had refused to lift the restrictions imposed by the state.
Lawyers for the state urged the court to step down on Thursday, noting that the restrictions would be lifted within a week. In addition, âstate policy is completely neutral with respect to religion; this applies to gatherings for any purpose – secular or religious, âthey said.
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