In a divided decision, the Supreme Court ruled Friday against a California ban on indoor church services. However, it did not strike down California’s restrictions on indoor singing, chanting, and limits to the number of worshipers. The ruling permits California churches to hold in-person services with a capacity limit of 25%. The restrictions and bans had been implemented as part of the ongoing struggle to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The ruling centers around two cases involving?California churches?South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom?and Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom. Both suits examined how public health restrictions may conflict with constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Justice Samuel Alito argued to lift all of the bans and restrictions, including the singing and chanting bans and the indoor capacity limit of 25%. Justice Gorsuch explained that “California does not explain why a single masked cantor cannot lead worship behind a mask and a plexiglass shield.” Justice Gorsuch also emphasized that other groups, such as the film industry, were given lighter restrictions than those imposed on religious institutions.
Chief Justice Roberts’s concurring opinion expressed support for deference to elected officials but argued that the bans and restrictions in place lacked “expertise or discretion.” Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s concurring opinion, joined by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, stated that the singing ban should remain in place.
Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Stephen Breyer, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented. Justice Kagan wrote that the restrictions and bans should not be lifted because the pandemic is ongoing. Justice Kagan’s dissent asserted that “in the worst public health crisis in a century, this foray into armchair epidemiology cannot end well.”