The U.S. Supreme Court rejected calls by churches in California and Illinois to block restrictions on worship services during the coronavirus outbreak, issuing orders that revealed a deep divide among the justices on the balance between religious liberty and protection of public health.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s liberals in a 5-4 majority in the California case, refusing to exempt a San Diego church from crowd limits imposed by the state. Roberts said judges must give elected officials wide latitude to make health and safety judgments during a pandemic.
“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,” Roberts wrote.
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh dissented. Kavanaugh wrote that California’s rules “discriminate against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses.”
The order came hours after the court, without any published dissent, rebuffed two churches that said coronavirus restrictions in Illinois were so strict they violated the Constitution.
In the California case, South Bay United Pentecostal Church sued over Governor Gavin Newsom’s April 28 decision to place in-person worship services in the third stage of the state’s reopening plan. That put churches in the same category as movie theaters, nail salons and concerts.
The church said it should have been treated like the stores, factories and offices that were allowed to at least partially reopen during the state’s second stage.
California later changed its plan to let churches begin reopening sooner. The current restrictions limit church attendance to 100 attendees or 25% of capacity, whichever is lower.
South Bay says it normally has 200 to 300 congregants in a 600-seat sanctuary for each of its Sunday services. The church says it plans to observe social distancing guidelines at its services.
Kavanaugh said the state hadn’t shown any justification for treating churches differently from secular businesses.
“Assuming all of the same precautions are taken, why can someone safely walk down a grocery store aisle but not a pew?” Kavanaugh wrote. “And why can someone safely interact with a brave deliverywoman but not with a stoic minister?”
Roberts said California’s reopening order “exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities.” He said that in grocery stores and other commercial outlets, “people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods,” referring to activities that can help the virus spread.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Roberts in the majority but didn’t sign on to his opinion. The court issued the order just before midnight Washington time Friday.
The Illinois case involved two Chicago-area churches, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries. They sued over Governor J.B. Pritzker’s April 30 stay-at-home order, which barred gatherings of more than 10 people.
In rejecting the churches in a three-sentence order, the Supreme Court pointed to a new order issued by Pritzker this week. Under that order, churches as of Saturday won’t be subject to mandatory restrictions and will instead be asked to follow guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The cases are South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, 19A1044, and Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church v. Pritzker, 19A1046.
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