WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Friday repealed a California regulation limiting religious worship in the home, the latest in a series of rulings in which judges found regulations on the coronavirus pandemic violated First Amendment protections for religion .
The unsigned 5-4 opinion, released just before midnight Friday, highlighted deep divisions on the issue, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with three dissenting Liberals. The court also noted that this was the fifth time it has overturned the California-based Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in similar cases.
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California had previously announced significant changes easing restrictions on gatherings that go into effect on April 15. The changes come after infection rates in the condition drop. But the court stressed in its opinion that such changes while a dispute is on appeal do not necessarily render the case moot.
In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, California has banned home gatherings in counties hit hard by the pandemic and has limited those gatherings elsewhere to no more than three households. The restrictions were challenged by two Christian pastors who wanted to organize Bible studies, prayer meetings and other services in their homes.
The court said California allows people from more than three households to congregate in hair salons, retail stores, movie theaters and restaurants. In view of this, the judges said, the state should show that it is more dangerous for people to congregate in homes for religious services than in these other places.
“When the government allows other activities to be carried out with care, it must show that the religious exercise in question is more dangerous than these activities even when the same precautions are applied,” the court wrote. “Otherwise, precautions which are sufficient for other activities are also sufficient for religious exercise.”
Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent joined by Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In it, Kagan claimed that the majority of the court undermined the ability of state officials to deal with a public health emergency.
“California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households. While the state also restricts all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment, ”she wrote.
Affirming that worshipers who gather in a home are likely to spend more time there than they do in a store, more likely to engage in long conversations, and less likely to wear masks and practice social distancing, Kagan asserted that the majority “continue to disobey the law and the facts look alike.”
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The court has dealt with a series of cases in which religious groups have challenged restrictions on coronaviruses impacting worship services. At the start of the pandemic, the court sided with state officials over objection from religious groups, this changed after the death of liberal judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg last September and her replacement by the Conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
The court, where the Tories now have a 6-3 majority, began to find other religious entities for churches in cases after initially siding with the states. In this case, the majority included Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Barrett.
Roberts reportedly denied the pastors’ appeals but he did not explain his reasoning and he did not join Kagan’s dissent.
In November, the High Court banned New York from enforcing certain limits on church and synagogues attendance in areas designated as hard hit by the virus. And in February, he told California he couldn’t ban indoor religious services due to the coronavirus pandemic, although he left the ban on singing and singing for now. inside.
Contributor: Associated Press