Supreme Court, in 5-4 Decision, Rejects Church’s Challenge to Shutdown Order


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday turned away a request from a church in California to block enforcement of state restrictions on attendance at spiritual companies.

The vote was 5 to four, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. becoming a member of the court docket’s four-member liberal wing to kind a majority.

“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 an opinion concurring in the unsigned ruling.

“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,” the chief justice wrote. “And the order exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.”

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh famous dissents.

“The church and its congregants simply want to be treated equally to comparable secular businesses,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote in a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch. “California already trusts its residents and any number of businesses to adhere to proper social distancing and hygiene practices.”

“The state cannot,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote, quoting from an appeals court docket resolution in a distinct case, “‘assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work or go about the rest of their daily lives in permitted social settings.’”

The court docket’s ruling was its first try to steadiness the general public well being disaster in opposition to the Constitution’s safety of spiritual freedom. And it expanded the Supreme Court’s engagement with the implications of the coronavirus pandemic, after rulings on voting in Wisconsin and prisons in Texas and Ohio.

The case was brought by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, Calif., which said Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, had lost sight of the special status of religion in the constitutional structure.

“I do not doubt the importance of the public health objectives that the state puts forth,” Judge Collins wrote, “but the state can accomplish those objectives without resorting to its current inflexible and overbroad ban on religious services.”

“Today, I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” he said, adding: “The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend. If they don’t do it, I will override the governors.”

“Plaintiffs’ sanctuary seats 600 persons, and each service normally brings in between 200 and 300 congregants,” the brief said. “Some of the larger houses of worship in California can seat 1,000 congregants or more. But under California’s guidelines, plaintiffs will only be permitted to welcome 100 congregants, with no explanation as to the justification for this arbitrary cap. In contrast, there is no percentage limitation for manufacturing and warehousing facilities — simply a social distancing requirement.”

“A review of California’s sector-specific guidelines shows that the only two industries with percentage caps are retail and houses of worship,” the brief said, “and retail is set at a 50 percent cap. Offices, manufacturing, food packaging, museums, and every other sector has no percentage cap.”

The court also acted on a second case on Friday, that one brought by two Chicago-area churches, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries. They said an order from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, discriminated against houses of worship.

In a preliminary and unsigned assessment of the case, the panel wrote that “the executive order does not discriminate against religious activities, nor does it show hostility toward religion.”

“It appears instead to impose neutral and generally applicable rules,” the panel wrote. “The executive order’s temporary numerical restrictions on public gatherings apply not only to worship services but also to the most comparable types of secular gatherings, such as concerts, lectures, theatrical performances or choir practices, in which groups of people gather together for extended periods, especially where speech and singing feature prominently and raise risks of transmitting the Covid-19 virus.”

“Worship services,” the panel wrote, “do not seem comparable to secular activities permitted under the executive order, such as shopping, in which people do not congregate or remain for extended periods.”



Source link Nytimes.com

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