A divided US Supreme Court has refused to allow churches in California and Illinois to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic with more worshippers than state plans permit.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who cast the deciding vote in the more consequential California case announced just before midnight, said choosing when to lift restrictions during a pandemic is the business of elected officials, not unelected judges. He was joined in the vote by the court’s four liberal justices.
Roberts, the only one of the five to explain his vote, compared in-person church services to other forms of assembly. His conservative colleagues who dissented compared the services to secular businesses.
“Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Roberts wrote.
“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.”
Writing for three of the four conservative justices who dissented, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh said California’s current 25% occupancy limit on churches amounted to “discrimination against religious worship services.”
“The basic constitutional problem is that comparable secular businesses are not subject to a 25% occupancy cap, including factories, offices, supermarkets, restaurants, retail stores, pharmacies, shopping malls, pet grooming shops, bookstores, florists, hair salons, and cannabis dispensaries,” Kavanaugh wrote.
The legal battle reached the nation’s highest court days before Pentecost Sunday, when churches that have been restricted to virtual or drive-by services since before Easter are eager to greet congregants.
In the California case, the court sided with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to limit in-church gatherings to 25% of capacity, and no more than 100 people.
In a second, separate case arising in Illinois, the justices earlier denied two Romanian American churches’ petition because Gov. J.P. Pritzker lifted his state’s restrictions Friday, making the complaint essentially moot.
The court said the churches could file “a new motion for appropriate relief if circumstances warrant.”
Culled from USA Today