The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday blocked California’s ban on in-home worship gatherings, citing the state’s unfair treatment of religious gatherings compared to those of secular businesses and organizations, The Washington Times reported.
The 5-4 ruling saw Chief Justice John Roberts once again siding with the court’s liberal wing in dissent as the other Republican-appointed justices ruled in the majority.
“California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise,” allowing hair salons, retail stores, and movie theaters, among other places, “to bring together more than three households at a time,” an unsigned order from the court read. A lower court “did not conclude that those activities pose a lesser risk of transmission than applicants’ proposed religious exercise at home,” the order continued.
The court noted that even though the ban was set to be loosened next week, “officials with a track record of ‘moving the goalposts’ retain authority to reinstate those heightened restrictions at any time” without the court’s order.
A close ruling
The dissent was written by Justice Elena Kagan and supported by Roberts and the other liberal justices on the court, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
Kagan contended that California’s restriction was fair because all at-home gatherings were similarly restricted. She and her liberal colleagues reasoned that comparing in-home gatherings to salons or movie theaters was like comparing “apples and watermelons.”
But the majority disagreed. “The State cannot assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work,'” the majority opinion said.
The ruling means that California cannot enforce its current or any future ban on in-home religious gatherings in which three or more households gather together.
The court has consistently ruled against restrictions on religious gatherings since Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment gave conservatives a 6-3 advantage on the court, even as many states have moved to force churches and other religious institutions to stop meeting in person during the COVID pandemic.
The court’s solid conservative majority may be the only thing holding back a progressive onslaught right now, but it is unclear how long that might last.
While none of the conservative justices are likely to retire while a Democrat is in the White House, Biden has used an executive order to appoint a commission to study possible reforms to the high court, including the idea of “court-packing”– adding justices to increase the total number that make up the court, giving liberals the majority.
While court-packing would do untold damage to our nation’s third branch, it will not likely materialize as long as the Senate filibuster holds. And for now, it is holding, thanks to opposition from Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Krysten Sinema (AZ).