Supreme Court sides with California religious ministry against state Covid restrictions

The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with a California ministry that argued the state’s Covid-related restrictions on indoor services violated its religious liberty rights, the court’s second such ruling on pandemic guidelines for churches in two weeks.

In an unsigned order, the justices sent the dispute between the Harvest Rock International Ministry and California Gov. Gavin Newsom back to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals to further consider the case in light of its ruling from last week when the court blocked similar restrictions in New York.
There were no noted dissents.
The case is the latest to reach the high court pitting supporters of religious liberty against state and local officials trying to protect individuals from Covid-19. The justices have already been bitterly divided on the issue.
    In a late night order issued on the eve of Thanksgiving, a 5-4 court ruled in favor of houses of worship challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus-related restrictions, arguing they treated religious organizations more harshly than secular businesses in violation of the First Amendment.
    Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s vote in the case was critical because before she took the bench, Chief Justice John Roberts had joined the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the three other liberals on the court last spring and summer to rule against houses of worship in similar cases out of Nevada and California.
    In the case at hand, the California ministry charged that Newsom, a Democrat, continued to impose “draconian and unconscionable prohibitions” on the lives of Californians and they accused the Governor of disregarding the restrictions “at his own whim.”
    To make their point they included in the legal filing a picture of Newsom at a restaurant with a large gathering where no one was wearing masks.
    In California, Newsom has designed a tier approach depending upon geographic location.
    A lawyer for the church said that while religious worship is at times “severely restricted,” grocery stores, big box retails stores, laundromats and warehouses do not have similar restrictions.
    “The disparate treatment of religious as compared to similar nonreligious congregate gatherings unquestionably and substantially burden the Churches’ exercise of religion and violates the First Amendment,” the lawyer said.
    California Attorney General Xavier Becerra rejected the church’s allegations telling the justices that the restrictions also apply to museums, movie theaters and restaurants. He also noted that there is currently a new surge spiking.
    In court papers, Becerra argued that the state has issued “a limited stay-at-home order imposing a one-month prohibition against non-essential work and gatherings in Tier 1 counties from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. “
      “We recognize that the current restrictions interfere with Plaintiffs’ legitimate interest in participating in indoor worship service — and the State is committed to relaxing those restrictions as soon as public health circumstances allow, as it has in the recent past,” he said. “At present, however, 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.”
      He distinguished his restrictions from those imposed by New York’s Cuomo arguing that California has adopted a “tailored policy” with restrictions on indoor activities that are “proportional to the public health risks associated with each activity.”

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