- The Washington Times - Friday, February 5, 2021

The Supreme Court on Friday struck down California’s COVID-19 ban on worship services but left in place other restrictions on churches intended to stop the spread of the virus.

In a 6-3 opinion, the high court said California must allow houses of worship to open at 25% capacity, which is similar to the restrictions placed on secular establishments.

The three Democratic-appointed justices would have kept the ban against indoor church gatherings intact.

The liberal wing of the court said the majority went too far in overriding the state’s safety precautions.

“Justices of this Court are not scientists. Nor do we know much about public health policy. Yet today the Court displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging pandemic,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Stephen Breyer.

The high court‘s move was not a total win for churches.

A majority of the justices agreed to leave a ban in place against singing and chanting.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. would have granted the churches’ request to lift the restrictions in full.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and Justice Amy Coney Barrett moved to keep a prohibition on singing and chanting until the churches could show evidence the activity could be done safely — or that the state permits secular businesses to allow singing and chanting in the same manner.

“The State has concluded, for example, that singing indoors poses a heightened risk of transmitting COVID–19. I see no basis in this record for overriding that aspect of the state public health framework,” wrote Justice Roberts.

In a separate statement, Justice Gorsuch, who was joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, said California cannot treat churches differently than secular establishments.

“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,” he wrote.

The case was brought by South Bay United Pentecostal Church and other churches across the state which have been battling California Gov. Gavin Newsom over his restrictions on worship for months during the coronavirus pandemic.

Friday’s order from the court gave the churches temporary relief as the case works its way through the courts.

The case is still pending at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal and for further review by the high court.

The justices’ order against California comes after the high court split 5-4 last year in a ruling against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for imposing certain limitations on capacities at churches and synagogues.

• Alex Swoyer can be reached at aswoyer@washingtontimes.com.

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