The Supreme Court advised California officials that they are not allowed to restrict indoor church services despite the threat of the coronavirus pandemic and can only ban singing and indoor chanting.
On Friday, the high court cited two cases where California churches filed lawsuits against COVID-19-related restrictions. The Supreme Court said that state officials had no authority to keep churches from performing indoor services despite the high number of positive cases.
However, the justices noted the state could impose a limit to a building’s capacity, maxing out at 25%. California officials were also allowed to continue the implementation of a ban that restricted indoor singing and chanting. The limitations were set in place due to the COVID-19 virus spreading much easier indoors, and talking or singing releases droplets that can carry the virus.
The South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church, and Harvest International Ministry sent emergency requests to the Supreme Court regarding the restrictions.
“Federal courts owe significant deference to politically accountable officials,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. However, he said that while officials had control over certain activities in relation to public health restrictions, deference “has its limits.”
Roberts wrote that California official’s ban on indoor church services had a zero-attendance requirement. He said that this was not based on expertise or discretion and gave no appreciation or consideration to the interests of the people attending the services.
In relation to Roberts’ ruling, several other justices expressed their views on the restrictions. While Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Clarence Thomas supported the enforcement of the singing ban, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the newest justice of the court, disagreed. Barrett said it remained unclear whether California officials implemented the singing ban fairly across the state.
“If a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral,” Barrett wrote. The justice’s statements forced the court to conduct a stricter assessment.
However, a few justices, including Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Stephen Breyer, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said the court’s actions of allowing indoor church services could worsen the pandemic. While saying that California was unfairly implementing restrictions, the justices said the court was heavily supporting religious services with its decision.
“I fervently hope that the Court’s intervention will not worsen the Nation’s COVID crisis. But if this decision causes suffering, we will not pay. Our marble halls are now closed to the public, and our life tenure forever insulates us from responsibility for our errors. That would seem good reason to avoid disrupting a State’s pandemic response. But the Court forges ahead regardless, insisting that science-based policy yield to judicial edict,” Kegan wrote, CBS News reported.
Meanwhile, a South Bay United Pentecostal Church attorney, Charles LiMandri, released a statement saying he and his clients were “heartened by this order” and expressed their thanks to the high court for protecting their religious liberty.
Harvest Rock Church representative Mat Staver said he and his client would continue to pursue the case in an attempt to restore religious freedom.