Last week the Supreme Court granted requests from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two Orthodox Jewish synagogues to lift New York’s coronavirus-related attendance limits on worship services. The broader impact of that ruling became even more apparent on Thursday morning, when the justices ordered a federal district court to take another look at a southern California church’s challenge to that state’s restrictions on indoor worship services.
The lawsuit was filed over the summer by the Harvest Rock Church, a Christian church with multiple campuses in California. The church contends that the COVID-19 restrictions imposed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), which prohibit or limit in-person worship services, depending on the number of cases in the county where the house of worship is located, violate its right to freely exercise its religion. The church argues that it is treated less favorably than businesses like grocery stores, malls, swap meets and card rooms, which can remain open with less stringent attendance limits – or, in the case of essential retail in the state’s least restrictive zones, with no attendance limits at all. Indeed, the church notes, it can still carry out its charitable work in its buildings. Moreover, the church adds, Newsom “openly encouraged” Black Lives Matter protests involving tens of thousands of people in May and June.
Emphasizing that COVID-19 cases in California are “spiking” and that indoor activities are especially risky for the spread of the virus, the state concedes that the church has “a powerful interest in worshipping in the place and manner of” its choosing. But it stresses that this case is different from the New York challenges because California “applies the same restrictions to indoor worship as to comparable secular activities involving large groups gathering in close proximity indoors for prolonged periods.” For instance, in its most restrictive zones, the state prohibits indoor gatherings at movie theaters, restaurants, museums and other large spaces, as well as worship services. The state suggested that before the Supreme Court rules on the church’s request, it should allow the lower court to “promptly evaluate” the church’s arguments in light of last week’s decision in the New York case and “the current factual and legal circumstances in California.”
The justices did exactly that on Thursday morning, with a brief two-sentence order. There were no public dissents from the ruling. The justices have two other pending requests for relief from COVID-related restrictions, involving houses of worship in New Jersey and a Christian school in Kentucky.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.