The U.S. Supreme Court has, once again, weighed in on California’s pandemic-related restrictions with regard to religious gatherings and the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of assembly and worship.
This time, a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court took aim at, and rejected, California’s onerous prohibition against more than three separate households gathering together in a private residence to exercise their religious beliefs, and knocked the liberal-leaning Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which had upheld the prohibition, in the process, Politico reported.
The majority included the high court’s five conservative members — Justices Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas — while Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s three liberal members, Justice Stephen Breyer, Elana Kagen, and Sonia Sotomayor.
According to Breitbart, the petitioners, in this case, included a pastor and a group of worshipers who had been meeting together in their homes in response to the state’s unfair restrictions on in-person services indoors at churches and other formal houses of worship.
But even their religious gatherings in private residences were prohibited by the state, and legal challenges to those restrictions were denied by lower federal courts, including the notoriously left-leaning Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with the state and upheld the ban on indoor gatherings of more than three households.
The pastor and his fellow worshippers finally turned to the Supreme Court in search of an injunction against California’s enforcement of the ban on indoor religious gatherings.
An injunction was granted Friday and the majority opinion chastised the Ninth Circuit for its “failure” to issue the requested injunction earlier, prior to laying out several points explaining why the injunction against California was necessary and proper.
“First, government regulations are not neutral and generally applicable, and therefore trigger strict scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause, whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise,” the majority wrote. “It is no answer that a State treats some comparable secular businesses or other activities as poorly as or even less favorably than the religious exercise at issue.”
“Second, whether two activities are comparable for purposes of the Free Exercise Clause must be judged against the asserted government interest that justifies the regulation at issue,” they continued. “Comparability is concerned with the risks various activities pose, not the reasons why people gather.”
Third, the burden rests on the government to find the least restrictive means to achieve its interests — reducing the spread of COVID-19 — and, “Where the government permits other activities to proceed with precautions, it must show that the religious exercise at issue is more dangerous than those activities even when the same precautions are applied. Otherwise, precautions that suffice for other activities suffice for religious exercise too.”
Correcting Ninth Circuit’s mistakes
“California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise, permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants to bring together more than three households at a time,” the majority asserted. “The State cannot ‘assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work.'”
In granting the injunction sought by the worshippers, the conservative majority duly noted, “This is the fifth time the Court has summarily rejected the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of California’s COVID restrictions on religious exercise.”