WASHINGTON (ChurchMilitant.com) - In another win for religious freedom, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against California's lockdown restrictions on churches.
The one-paragraph order in Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom, handed down Thursday, vacates a lower court order that had refused to block California governor Gavin Newsom's lockdown restrictions on churches, and kicks the case back to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for reconsideration.
Harvest Rock Church is suing Newsom, alleging his lockdown restrictions discriminate against houses of worship by imposing stricter rules for them than for secular businesses.
Tier 2 of Newsom's lockdown orders "restricts religious worship to 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is less; but permits laundromats, warehouses and meat packing plants with no restriction," Harvest Rock argues in its reply brief. It also allows "essential retail," museums, gyms, malls and swap meets to operate at a certain percentage with no numerical cap — unlike churches.
"The Governor prohibits or restricts 'gatherings' in churches or private homes, but he publicly encourages thousands of protesters singing and chanting," the complaint continues.
But Newsom insisted the restrictions on churches are necessary owing to the pandemic, and denied that churches were being treated any differently from comparable secular businesses.
"We recognize that the current restrictions interfere with Plaintiffs' legitimate interest in participating in indoor worship service," argued California's attorney general Xavier Becerra, a Catholic, going on to say that "that temporary interference is justified by the State's interest in limiting the transmission of COVID-19 through tailored, evidence-based policies that are proportional to the degree of risk posed by particular activities."
The Supreme Court was unconvinced. Referring to its recent case Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, which halted New York's lockdown restrictions on churches and temples, it remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit to reconsider in light of that case.
"Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area," the High Court held in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. "But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten."
"The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment's guarantee of religious liberty," it noted.
The Court in that case split 5–4, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett joining the other four reliably conservative justices: Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. It was her first vote in a significant case since being confirmed on Oct. 26.
Governor Newsom recently came under fire after he was caught violating his own lockdown restrictions by dining with a dozen people in close quarters at one of California's most expensive restaurants without social distancing or masks. When initially caught, he apologized — but falsely claimed they had been dining outside.
A photo that later surfaced contradicted his claim, showing the party in a private indoor room. Even more, next to Newsom sat several lobbyists, two who work for the California Medical Association, which has benefited in the millions of dollars from the pandemic.
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Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which represents Harvest Rock Church, commented, "The handwriting is now on the wall. The final days of Governor Gavin Newsom's 'color-coded executive edicts' banning worship are numbered and coming to an end. It is past time to end these unconstitutional restrictions on places of worship."
The Harvest Church case now goes back to the Ninth Circuit for a ruling on the merits. If the Ninth Circuit rules against the church and in favor of Newsom's restrictions, the case is expected to be appealed again to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, if it agrees to hear the case, will likely hand down a 5–4 ruling in favor of religious liberty.