The Supreme Court late Friday lifted some restrictions California had put in place on church services in connection with the coronavirus pandemic while leaving others in place.
The justices ruled, by 6-3, the state cannot ban indoor worship, but it is able to cap services at 25% capacity, reports The Hill. However, the courts did not stop the state from enforcing its ban on indoor singing or chanting.
The rulings came in two cases brought by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena after the state moved to ban indoor worship services, along with other indoor activities like dining and movie theaters, in its "Tier 1" areas, which encompass most of the state.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote federal courts owe "significant deference to politically accountable officials regarding public health restrictions." However, he said such deference "has its restrictions."
He further said the state's rulings the "maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero" does not reflect "expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake."
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for herself and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, said she was not clear if the ban was being applied equally or if it favored "certain sectors."
"If a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California's regulations cannot be viewed as neutral," Barrett wrote. "But the record is uncertain, and the decisions below, unfortunately, shed little light on the issue."
Meanwhile, Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, with Kagan writing the court's ruling "defies our caselaw, exceeds our judicial role and risks worsening the pandemic" by making a "special exception" for worship services.
She added she hopes the court's intervention does not worsen the national COVID crisis, but "if this decision causes suffering, we will not pay."
The court ruled recently 5-4 to stop New York from enforcing limits on church services.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed an amicus brief in support of the churches' filing, applauded the court's ruling Saturday.
"California had no right to declare itself a religion-free zone," said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. "When every other state in the country has figured out a way to both allow worship and protect the public health, maybe you are doing it wrong. We are glad this extreme violation of our first freedom has finally come to an end."
"When it comes to First Amendment rights, courts should not rubber-stamp public health restrictions," he added. "That is especially so as we near the one-year anniversary of the lockdown orders. Instead, courts should carefully balance the right to worship and the public health."
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