An emergency appeal to California Governor Gavin Newsom’s order limiting church services during the COVID-19 pandemic was rejected by the United States Supreme Court on Friday.
The South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista filed a lawsuit earlier this month seeking to overturn the Governor’s health order restricting church services.
The church argued that the ban was unconstitutional because it infringes on its freedom to practice their religion. A federal court in San Diego rejected their claim on May 15th, as did the appellate court last week.
Last week, Governor Newsom announced that church services could resume but with limits on attendance of 25% of building capacity or 100 attendees, whichever is lower.
The church then amended its compliant to challenge the attendance limits that it says violates constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. The church said it usually draws 200 to 300 people for its services.
Pastor Arthur E. Hodges III has promised he would fully open his church on Sunday, May 31st, the Christian holy day of Pentecost.
The Supreme Court vote was 5-4 with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the Court’s four liberal justices.
“Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the majority’s decision.
Roberts argued that the Court shouldn’t interject itself and overrule local health officials and elected officials that are dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 virus in a good faith effort to protect the public.
“Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time,” Roberts noted.
The other four conservative justices, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, voted to grant the appeal.
Justice Bret Kavanaugh, whose nomination last year by President Trump was contencious after allegations of sexual assault surfaced during his confirmation hearings, wrote the dissenting opinion and argued that “irreparable harm from not being able to hold services on Pentecost Sunday in a way that comparable secular businesses and persons can conduct their activities.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who defended the Governor’s order, argued that the policy “tracked recent guidance issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Becerra argued that churches are not injured by the order because while services normally bring in between 200 and 300 congregants, there is nothing that prevents them from “offering additional meeting times.”
“Indeed, while in-person religious services are now permitted, many other activities that are ‘most comparable’ in terms of COVID-transmission risk factors — ‘concerts, lectures, theatrical performances, or choir practices, in which groups of people gather together for extended periods’ — continue to be barred,” Becerra told the justices in court papers.