SPY380.36-1.97 -0.52%
DIA309.45-4.53 -1.44%
IXIC13,192.35+72.96 0.56%

DJ Supreme Court Hands California Churches Partial Relief From Covid-19 Restrictions

· 02/06/2021 03:11
By Jess Bravin

WASHINGTON--The Supreme Court late Friday exempted churches from California's public-health order banning indoor gatherings in counties suffering widespread risk of Covid-19 infections, but permitted the state to forbid singing and chanting at worship services.

The court's order, based on challenges by two churches, exposed stark divisions among the justices over the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic. Three liberal justices, as they have throughout the emergency, would have approved the most aggressive interventions to stem the spread of infections.

Three of the most conservative justices viewed the state's regulations as infringing on religious rights and would have granted the churches all they wished, or nearly so.

Chief Justice John Roberts sought to walk a middle path, and, along with Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, voted to set aside the ban on indoor worship while leaving intact the singing restriction.

In November, the court by a 5-4 vote set aside New York state regulations limiting attendance at religious services.

Churches and other religious organizations have been among the most active challengers to regulations intended to fight the pandemic.

A Chula Vista, Calif., church that won a partial victory Friday, , has been fighting state and county public-health orders since May. Harvest Rock Church, in Pasadena, Calif., won a similar order for itself and its related ministry organization.

South Bay United Pentecostal Church

The churches challenging the regulation argued that they should be classified alongside shopping malls and retail businesses, where capacity currently is capped at 25%.

The state, citing findings from public-health specialists, contended that worship services, where people from different households sit in close proximity for extended periods, were more akin to theaters, political rallies and other gatherings which only are permitted to operate outdoors.

Chief Justice Roberts generally has deferred in Covid-19 cases to responsible officials. "Deference, though broad, has its limits," he wrote Friday. He said that California's order, which prohibits services even "in the most cavernous cathedral," didn't sufficiently consider believers' interest in congregating for worship. But he accepted the state's conclusion that "singing indoors poses a heightened risk of transmitting Covid-19" and could continue to be restricted.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, however, said that California had targeted religious institutions for unfair treatment.

"We are not scientists, but neither may we abandon the field when government officials with experts in tow seek to infringe a constitutionally protected liberty," he wrote, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. He argued that the state must do far more to tailor regulations to worshipers' needs than simply ban services outright.

"No one is barred from lingering in shopping malls, salons, or bus terminals," he wrote. If prolonged services were the problem, the state should consider less restrictive approaches, "like a reasonable limit on the length of indoor religious gatherings...to meet its concerns."

He was likewise skeptical of the ban on singing and chanting. "Even if a full congregation singing hymns is too risky, California does not explain why even a single masked cantor cannot lead worship behind a mask and a plexiglass shield," he wrote. "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."

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the court had no expertise in public health and shouldn't displace the judgment of elected officials and public-health specialists battling the pandemic.

"The State is desperately trying to slow the spread of a deadly disease. It has concluded, based on essentially undisputed epidemiological findings, that congregating together indoors poses a special threat of contagion. So it has devised regulations to curb attendance at those assemblies and--in the worst times--to force them outdoors," she wrote, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

California's restrictions targeted not only religious services, but other activities protected by the First Amendment, such as political gatherings, lectures and performances. The majority, she argued, was awarding religious exercise priority over other constitutional rights.

"In the worst public health crisis in a century," she wrote, "this foray into armchair epidemiology cannot end well."

Write to Jess Bravin at jess.bravin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 06, 2021 03:11 ET (08:11 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.