Late last night, in a somewhat surprising decision from the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the four liberals and delivered a 5-4 ruling keeping in place limitations on church attendance during the pandemic.
Technically speaking, they rejected an appeal from South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California, near San Diego. The church didn’t like that its usual attendance of 250 people was only allowed to reopen at 25% building capacity (or 100 people maximum) and sued the state for violating their “religious freedom.”
Roberts correctly noted that churches are like movie theaters (enclosed spaces where people are near each other for long stretches of time) and less like grocery stores (where people just go in and out without lingering next to strangers). Since the former venues are subject to the same restrictions, there’s nothing illegal about asking churches to follow the same rules.
Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 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. 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.
Naturally, the Court’s other conservatives disagreed with his distinction. Justice Brett Kavanaugh said churches were just like grocery stores and therefore shouldn’t be subject to attendance limits.
The irony here is that Roberts and the liberals effectively saved many Christian lives by keeping those limitations in place… and yet the Christian Right will inevitably praise the conservatives for not putting them in danger.
Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, praised the decision and lauded pastors who have found new ways to preach without putting bodies in the seats.
“The Supreme Court’s order allows [California] Governor [Gavin] Newsom to protect the health and religious freedom of the people of California. Governor Newsom’s public health order, which applies to both religious and secular gatherings, does not violate religious freedom; it advances it by ensuring that the government is not favoring some people’s religious practices in a way that endangers other people’s lives.
“We applaud the faith leaders who are finding new methods to provide solace, spiritual guidance and community to their congregations while it is still unsafe for them to meet in person. Because COVID-19 can spread easily at both religious and secular gatherings, we are all relying on each other to follow the advice of health experts to keep everyone well.”
It’s sad that listening to scientists during a deadly pandemic that has already taken 100,000 lives is somehow a political and legal problem, but at least this one time, churches in California won’t get the opportunity to spread the virus.
(Screenshot via YouTube)