Supreme Court Rules Against Gov. Newsom’s Limits on Religious Gatherings

"Gavin Newsom" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Gage Skidmore

Supreme Court Rules Against Gov. Newsom’s Limits on Religious GatheringsLast Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of lifting restrictions on in-home religious gatherings, overturning Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Coronavirus restrictions.

In a divided decision late Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of lifting COVID restrictions on in-home religious gatherings. The decision noted it was the fifth time the court has rejected the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of California coronavirus restrictions. 

The 5-4 ruling follows other similar rulings, recently concerning churches and the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Before it can limit religious gatherings, the ruling stated that the government must prove they pose a greater danger than secular activities that remain open, such as shopping or attending movies.

The majority opinion said, “Otherwise, precautions that suffice for other activities suffice for religious exercise too,” adding that 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 dining at restaurants to bring together more than three households at a time.”

The majority opinion also added that the State could not “assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work.”

Meanwhile, Justice Elena Kagan, together with Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and John Roberts, ruled against easing COVID-19 restrictions. They wrote in a dissenting opinion that the State has complied with the First Amendment because it also restricts secular at-home gatherings to three households.

California “has adopted a blanket restriction on-at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike,” Kagan wrote in the dissent, joined by Sotomayor and Breyer. 

Kagan added that the law does not require that the State equally treat apples and watermelons, saying that in-home gatherings should not be compared to businesses. 

According to the report by The New York Times, said the lawsuit was brought to the Supreme court by residents in Santa Clara County who hold in-home religious meetings and claimed the restrictions infringed on their constitutional rights.

Accordingly, a federal judge ruled against the lawsuit, which the Ninth Circuit upheld in San Francisco before being overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

“U.S. Supreme Court Building” (public domain) by Gary Todd

The Ninth Circuit wrote of the federal court’s findings, “The state reasonably concluded that when people gather in social settings, their interactions are likely to be longer than they would be in a commercial setting that participants in a social gathering are more likely to be involved in prolonged conversations; that private houses are typically smaller and less ventilated than commercial establishments, and that social distancing and mask-wearing are less likely in private settings and enforcement are more difficult.”

Meanwhile, a New York times Story this week was published talking about the Supreme Court’s recent track record of ruling in favor of religious groups.

Adam Liptak, a Supreme Court reporter, wrote a piece entitled “An Extraordinary Winning Streak for Religion at the Supreme Court,” discussing the new study finding religious organizations winning 81% of relevant cases before the Roberts Court, a period which dates to 2005. 

In contrast, the study found religious interest won only 46% of relevant cases before the Supreme Court when it was led by Chief Justice Earl Warren between 1953 and 1969.

In addition to these findings, a sharp bipartisan divide has emerged as well. Judges appointed by former President Donald Trump have sided with religious interests 72% of the time over the past five years, while Democrat-appointed judges have done so just 10% of the time over the same period.

Liptak recognized that while the justices once shared a bipartisan commitment to freedom of religion, studies now find a solid correlation between party appointment and adherence to that principle.