WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court Friday shot down a California regulation limiting religious worship at home, the latest in a series of rulings in which the justices have found that coronavirus pandemic regulations violate the First Amendment’s protections of religion.
The 5-4 unsigned opinion, published just before midnight on Friday, highlighted the deep divisions over the issue, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with three liberals who dissented. The court also noted that this was the fifth time it had overturned the California-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in similar cases.
California had already announced significant changes loosening restrictions on gatherings that go into effect April 15. The changes come after infection rates have gone down in the state. But the court stressed in its opinion that such changes while a dispute is on appeal does not necessarily make the case moot. In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, California prohibited at home gatherings in counties hard hit by the pandemic and limited those gatherings elsewhere to no more than three households. The restrictions were challenged by two Christian pastors who wanted to hold Bible studies, prayer meetings and other services in their home.
The court said California allows people to gather from more than three households in hair salons, retail stores, movie theaters and restaurants. Given that, the justices said, the state would need to show that it is more dangerous for people to gather in homes for religious services than in those other places. “Where the government permits other activities to proceed with precautions, it must show that the religious exercise at issue is more dangerous than those activities even when the same precautions are applied,” the court wrote. “Otherwise, precautions that suffice for other activities suffice for religious exercise too.”
Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent that was joined by AssociateJustice Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In it, Kagan asserted that the court’s majority was hurting state officials’ ability to address a public health emergency.