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Ahead of Pentecost, Supreme Court backs California coronavirus limits on churches

Chief Justice John Roberts, a President George W. Bush appointee, joined four Democrat-appointed justices in the 5-4 majority Friday.

(CNS file photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

Denver Newsroom, May 30, 2020 / 11:53 am (CNA).- The Supreme Court ruled in favor of California’s limits on the number of people who may attend a church service, in a decision that saw justices debating whether religious services were being treated more strictly than similar gatherings under restrictions aimed to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Chief Justice John Roberts, a President George W. Bush appointee, joined four Democrat-appointed justices in the 5-4 majority Friday. His opinion emphasized the need to defer to elected officials amid efforts to respond to the Covid-19 epidemic.

“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,” he said, adding that local officials are “actively shaping their response to changing facts on the ground.”

Precedent entrusts to elected officials judgments about the safety and health of the people, he said, and they have especially broad latitude in areas of “medical and scientific uncertainties.”

“Where those broad limits are not exceeded, they should not be subject to second-guessing by an ‘unelected federal judiciary,’ which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people,” he continued.

The decision responded to an emergency appeal from the South Bay United Pentecostal Church and its senior pastor Bishop Arthur Hodges III, who had challenged California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order limiting churches to 25% of their normal maximum capacity, with 100 people maximum at any service. The church said it would follow other guidance on social distancing and hygiene.

Roberts said “comparable secular gatherings” have similar or more strict restrictions, including “lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

“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,” he said.

In a mid-May interview, Hodges stressed the need for in-person events at his church.

“For example, it’s essential for people to be baptized,” he told NBC San Diego. “But you can’t baptize yourself. You have to have the church, the clergy, to do that.”

In a May 29 post on Twitter, Hodges said “a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is necessary to avoid civil disobedience by thousands of churches in California and other states on this Pentecost Sunday, May 31.”

The church had filed an injunction request alleging that state and local officials “intentionally denigrated California churches and pastors and people of faith by relegating them to third-class citizenship,” City News Service reports. It objected to the placement of places of worship in Stage 3 of California’s reopening plan. This stage includes movie theaters, salons and gyms. The church also argued that manufacturing and warehouses had been arbitrarily classed in Stage 2, a faster track for reopening.

Roberts said the restrictions “appear consistent with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.” He rejected the claim that it is “indisputably clear” the government limitations are unconstitutional.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, however, said the occupancy cap “indisputably discriminates against religion, and such discrimination violates the First Amendment.”

“The church would suffer irreparable harm from not being able to hold services on Pentecost Sunday in a way that comparable secular businesses and persons can conduct their activities,” he said in his dissent.

“The basic constitutional problem is that comparable secular businesses are not subject to a 25% occupancy cap, including factories, offices, supermarkets, restaurants, retail stores, pharmacies, shopping malls, pet grooming shops, bookstores, florists, hair salons, and cannabis dispensaries,” he continued.

Kavanaugh said the state must offer a “compelling justification” to distinguish between religious worship services and “the litany of other secular businesses that are not subject to an occupancy cap.”

“California has not shown such a justification,” he said, noting the importance of the church’s willingness to abide by state rules that apply to comparable secular business, including social distancing and hygiene rules.

“I would grant the Church’s requested temporary injunction because California’s latest safety guidelines discriminate against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses. Such discrimination violates the First Amendment,” he said.

Kavanaugh’s dissent was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. Justice Samuel Alito dissented but did not join the opinion.

The court rejected a different appeal from two Chicago-area churches that challenged a 10-person limit on attendees at religious services. Before the court took action, Gov. Jay Pritzker increased the limit to 100 attendees per service.

The churches, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church of Chicago and Logos Baptist Ministries of Niles, Ill., had both sought to open ahead of the Christian holy day of Pentecost.

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  1. Very disappointing. No indication that these measures were the least restrictive necessary to accomplish the objective of protecting public health and safety. In order for constitutional liberties to be infringed its incumbent on the authorities to demonstrate that less restrictive measures would be unavailing. If the state of California failed to produce scientific proof in the regard this decision does not bode well for the future of freedom of religion in our nation.

  2. If Jesus wants people to go to Mass and worship him, then he should rid the world of the coronavirus. Until he does that, people are wise to keep away. Iron clad reasoning right there.

      • The virus doesn’t care about your free will. It will get you in church just as easily as anywhere else. Staying away is a good exercise of free will, is the poster’s point, I think.

        • Those who are healthy should not have their God given and First Amendment rights trampled because of a virus that has a current mortality rate in the United States of .0002881%.

          You’ll likely be advocating the same overreaction and draconian policies during the upcoming flu season this fall.

        • Douglas ,
          Sure viruses don’t discriminate but I’m much more likely to catch Covid shopping where social distancing’s not enforced than in a church where it is.

    • Kevin, If God was to rid the world of every thing harmful to human beings He’d need to remove most of the human race as well. We pose much more danger to each other than Covid does.

  3. Roberts gave us Obamacare and an early look into his empty Soul.This latest attempt at wanting liberal love by Mr Roberts isn’t surprising.

  4. How very sad that the country has come to the point that worship is seen as unnecessary or irrelevant to the nation. That this is the decision of our Supreme Court, which given its responsibility to uphold our Constitutional Rights, proves how far from a moral center our nation has fallen. Sadder still that this “pandemic” which has not yet proven, in terms of numbers of victims, to be as scary as predicted, continues to turn so many people into frightened obedient serfs.As our people continue to be robbed of their rights in many BLUE states, I hope some of our Bishops in the Northeast will look to the Bishops in Minnesota who finally TOLD their governor they were opening. Is this worth being arrested for? Yes, it is. Once the jails are full of believers the real agenda behind these shut downs will be seen for what it is.An effective way to destroy the church. When the disease supposedly “spikes” in the Fall, be prepared for govt demands to shut down again. Having closed the doors without murmur to govt intervention once, the Bishops will find it near impossible to open them again. Hysteria and a meek leadership has done what the Romans could not. Closed our churches and deprived our people of the sacraments. Very sad.

  5. Justice Robert’s reasoning is sound IF there wasn’t the Establishment Clause of the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, he treats restaurants and factories as if they’re explicitly protected and religion as if it’s not. Essentially, he’s attempting to nullify the First Amendment – Dangerous and unwise.

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