July-August 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

The U.S. Supreme Court May 30 rejected a California church’s request for an exemption to the state’s public health order that temporarily limited both religious and secular gatherings.

The 5-4 ruling is strong evidence that the high court will not look favorably on demands from houses of worship that they should be able to override state orders and hold in-person services during the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision, which was released shortly before midnight, was written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts. In the ruling, he explained that orders curbing large gatherings are permissible because they treat religious and secular entities alike.

“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,” Roberts 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.”

Americans United says that language is significant because it shows that five justices are not sympathetic to the view that houses of worship should be treated like grocery stores and other entities deemed “essential,” which have remained open during the pandemic.

Several Religious Right groups filed lawsuits on behalf of fundamentalist churches that sought the right to reopen for services in the face of orders from governors banning all large gatherings, religious and secular.

Roberts was joined in the opinion by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen G. Breyer. Justice Brett Kavanaugh along with Justices Clar­ence M. Thomas, Samuel A. Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

 In his dissent, Kavanaugh argued that houses of worship should be treated like grocery stores. His dissent, which was joined by all of the dissenting justices save for Alito, drew criticism from several legal observers. Among them was Linda Greenhouse, former Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times.

“Churches are not like the retail stores or ‘cannabis dispensaries’ in Justice Kavanaugh’s list of ‘comparable secular businesses,’” wrote Greenhouse. “Sitting in communal worship for an hour or more is not like picking up a prescription, or a pizza, or an ounce of marijuana. You don’t need a degree in either law or public health to figure that out. If anything, California is giving churches preferential treatment, since other places where people gather in large numbers like lecture halls and theaters are still off limits.”

Americans United hailed the high court’s ruling.

“The Supreme Court’s order allows Gov. Gavin Newsom to protect the health and religious freedom of the people of California,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, said in a statement. “Gov. 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,” continued Laser. “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.”

The Supreme Court also refused to take action in a similar Illinois case after Gov. Jay Pritzker (D) lifted all restrictions on religious services, thus making the case moot.

Americans United has filed amicus briefs in both the California case, South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, and the Illinois case, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church v. Pritzker, as well as 16 similar cases nationwide. AU has urged courts to protect both public health and religious freedom by treating secular and religious gatherings equally.