Roberts joins liberal justices to rule against church challenging harsh COVID restrictions

The Supreme Court Friday ruled against a church's challenge to California's executive order restricting crowds at places of worship to curb the spread of COVID-19. File

In a three-page opinion (pdf), Roberts disagreed with the church saying that California's restrictions appear consistent with the First Amendment. Places that may be under less-severe restrictions, like supermarkets and banks, involve situations where "people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods".

The reason for denial was justified by reference to law that placed responsibility for the health and welfare of the general populace in the hands of elected officials, who should not be subject to second-guessing by unelected judiciary, "especially... while local officials are actively shaping their response to changing facts on the ground". "Our Constitution principally entrusts "the safety and the health of the people" to the politically accountable officials of the states 'to guard and protect'".

"The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement", Justice Roberts wrote for the court. They also thought that the church "would suffer irreparable harm from not being able to hold services on Pentecost Sunday in a way that comparable secular businesses and persons can conduct their activities".

However, Roberts said the restrictions did not violate the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment and there were similar restrictions on other large gatherings. He said the church and its congregants are simply seeking equal treatment with comparable secular businesses.

Gorsuch, and Brett M. Kavanaugh would have granted the application.

"California has not shown such a justification", he said, noting the importance of the church's willingness to abide by state rules that apply to comparable secular business, including social distancing and hygiene rules.

Quoting from an appeals court decision in a different case, Kavanaugh wrote: "The state can not 'assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work or go about the rest of their daily lives in permitted social settings'".

"The disappointing ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court was a close 5-4 vote, based on the very high standards required for obtaining an emergency injunction on appeal".

Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Supreme Court's four liberals in turning away a request from the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, Calif., in the San Diego area.

"It is absolutely imperative that the U.S. Supreme Court considers these important issues on the merits-after the rulings in the lower courts become final".

The church argued the California Governor Gavin Newsom's state limits on the number of people who could attend church service violated their constitutional right to religious freedom.

The ruling upholds Newsom's restrictions, which limit churches to 25% capacity or 100 maximum total attendees during a church service. "In light of the tremendous uncertainty continuing to surround this new and deadly virus, however, it would be rash to do so today, before public-health officials have had the opportunity to evaluate evidence of the policy's effectiveness in practice".



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