The Supreme Court handed down a victory for advocates of religious freedom this week.
The Sacramento Bee reports that the nation’s highest court ruled 6–3 Friday in favor of a pair of California churches that had contested mandates issued by the state’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, in light of COVID-19.
According to the Bee, “The court’s majority said Newsom’s order violated the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion.” Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer dissented.
A partial victory
At issue were two cases concerning the South Bay United Pentecostal Church, which is based near San Diego, and Harvest Rock Church, based in Pasadena, respectively. In the Friday ruling, the Supreme Court said Newsom and the Golden State can’t prohibit the churches or other houses of worship from holding in-person services, the Associated Press reported.
Instead, the state can only “cap indoor services at 25% of a building’s capacity,” the AP said. But it wasn’t a total victory for the churches.
According to the AP, singing and chanting in church will still be prohibited, per an order issued by Newsom last summer. “California had put the restrictions in place because the virus is more easily transmitted indoors and singing releases tiny droplets that can carry the [coronavirus] disease,” the AP said.
“Obviously targets religion”
Of course, if it were solely up to Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, then the churches would have gotten the full relief they sought.
According to Breitbart, Gorsuch wrote for them both: “Apparently, California is the only State in the country that has gone so far as to ban all indoor religious services. When a State so obviously targets religion for differential treatment, our job becomes that much clearer.”
Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett largely agreed with Gorsuch and Thomas, but they argued that South Bay United Pentecostal Church had failed to demonstrate that California’s coronavirus-related restrictions were unnecessary from a public health standpoint, Breitbart reported.
A step in the right direction
Chief Justice John Roberts, on the other hand, wanted to deny all relief to churches because the “federal courts owe significant deference to politically accountable officials with the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health.”
Instead, he granted partial relief, saying that California’s restriction on churches “appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake,” according to Breitbart.
While only a partial victory, Friday’s Supreme Court decision was certainly a step in the right direction.