The Supreme Court late Friday rejected a bid that it block California from limiting the number of people allowed to attend religious services during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s liberal minority to vote 5-4 in favor of denying an application for injunctive relief that aimed to overturn attendance caps recently imposed on religious services within the state to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the contagious disease caused by the coronavirus.
“Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment,” Chief Justice Roberts, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, wrote in an opinion concurring with the court’s ruling.
“Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time,” he added. “And the order exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.”
California was the first state in the country to impose travel and business restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 100,000 people across the U.S. since the first domestic cases were confirmed in January.
Lawyers representing South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula subsequently took issue with a statewide restriction limiting attendance at places of worship, which is currently capped at 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 people, and last week filed an emergency appeal asking the high court to intervene.
“The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement,” Justice Roberts wrote for the court. “Our Constitution principally entrusts ‘the safety and the health of the people’ to the politically accountable officials of the states ‘to guard and protect.’”
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, an appointee of President Trump’s, wrote in the dissenting opinion that he believed California’s order was unconstitutional.
“California’s latest safety guidelines discriminate against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses. Such discrimination violates the First Amendment,” he wrote.
“California already trusts its residents and any number of businesses to adhere to proper social distancing and hygiene practices,” he added. “The state cannot assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work or go about the rest of their daily lives in permitted social settings.”