featured graphic for the United States Supreme Court during COVID-19

US Supreme Court denies injunctive relief to allow California church services

By a 5-4 vote, the US Supreme Court denied a petition for injunctive relief against restrictions to church services brought by South Bay Pentecostal Church under Governor Gavin Newsom’s lockdown order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The response was to an application for injunctive relief referred by Associate Justice Elena Kagan. Chief Justice John G. Roberts concurred with the denial, as did Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito, Neil M. Gorsuch, and Brett M. Kavanaugh would have granted the application.

In denying injunctive relief, the Court stated:

Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent withthe Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 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 pe-riods of time. 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.

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. The notion that it is ‘indisputably clear’ that the Government’s limitations are unconstitutional seems quite improbable.”

In contrast, Justice Kavanaugh wrote for those who would have granted the application for injunctive relief:

The State also has substantial room to draw lines, espe-cially in an emergency. But as relevant here, the Constitu-tion imposes one key restriction on that line-drawing: The State may not discriminate against religion.

In sum, California’s 25% occupancy cap on religious wor-ship services indisputably discriminates against religion, and such discrimination violates the First Amendment.