WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court tells California that it cannot enforce coronavirus-related restrictions that limit religious worship at home, including Bible studies and prayer meetings.
The court’s order on late Friday is the last in a series of cases where the Supreme Court prevented officials from enforcing some coronavirus-related restrictions on religious gatherings.
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Five Conservative judges agreed that California’s restrictions on religious gatherings at home should be lifted for the time being, while the court’s three Liberals and Chief Justice John Roberts did not.
However, California has already announced significant changes that will ease the restrictions on gatherings that go into effect on April 15th. The changes come after the state’s infection rates drop.
The case before the judges related to California rules that most states limit indoor social gatherings to no more than three households. Participants must wear masks and be physically separated from each other. Different restrictions apply to places like schools, grocery stores, and churches.
“California treats some similar secular activities more favorably than home religious practice,” allowing hair salons, retail stores, and movie theaters, among other things, “to bring together more than three households at once,” the court’s unsigned order said. A lower court “did not conclude that these activities pose a lower risk of transmission than the domestic religious practice proposed by the applicants,” it said.
The court admitted that California assembly policy will change next week, but said the restrictions will remain in place until then and that “officials with a track record of moving the goalposts retain the power to reinstate these tightened restrictions at any time”.
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Judge Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent for herself and her liberal counterparts, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, that the majority of the court compromised the ability of state officials to address a public health emergency.
“California limits religious meetings in private homes to three households. Even though the state restricts all secular home gatherings to three households, it has adhered to the first amendment. And the state does just that: it has put a blanket restriction on gatherings of all kinds at home, both religious and secular. California doesn’t have to … treat religious meetings at home the same way it does hardware stores and hair salons, ”she wrote. She added that “the law does not require the state to treat apples and watermelons equally”.
The case before the judges involved two residents of Santa Clara County, San Francisco Bay Area, who wish to hold small face-to-face Bible studies in their homes. California had defended its policy of restricting social gatherings as “completely neutral”.
The court has looked into a number of cases where religious groups have cracked down on coronavirus restrictions affecting worship services. At the beginning of the pandemic, the court sided with state officials over the objection from religious groups. This changed after the death of the liberal judiciary Ruth Bader Ginsburg last September and its replacement by the conservative judiciary Amy Coney Barrett.
In November, the New York Supreme Court banned the enforcement of certain restrictions on visiting churches and synagogues in areas identified as affected by the virus. And in February, the California Supreme Court said it could not ban indoor services because of the coronavirus pandemic, although it did allow a ban on singing and singing indoors for the time being.
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