On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in a case challenging restrictions California imposed on houses of worship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Monday’s order marks the sixth time that the Supreme Court has ruled against unfair restrictions that treated California churches more strictly than secular businesses.
For months, California churches faced particularly complicated and onerous restrictions that limited church attendance and inhibited religious exercise. In multiple cases, churches and pastors faced fines or the threat of imprisonment for holding indoor worship services. However, following Justice Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court in October 2020, California churches have started to experience relief. As of April 23, 2021, California’s guidance for houses of worship states that “location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory but are strongly recommended. Additionally, the restrictions on indoor singing and chanting are recommended only.”
The Supreme Court’s willingness to defend religious liberty is a welcome development. Because of the Court’s guidance on this issue, more and more states are relaxing their worship restrictions. As of April 26, 2021, 41 states impose no restrictions on in-person indoor worship. Only nine states and the District of Columbia still impose a percentage-based limit on indoor worship. D.C. is the last remaining jurisdiction that imposes both a percentage limit and a numerical cap on the number of people who can congregate for indoor worship services. However, these restrictions were enjoined by court order in March 2021, and the D.C. government has announced it will remove the numerical cap beginning May 1, 2021.
What follows is a timeline of the six times the U.S. Supreme Court has issued opinions or orders upholding the rights of churches against California’s COVID-19 restrictions.
1. South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom
On February 5, 2021, the Supreme Court enjoined California’s total ban on indoor worship in Tier 1 counties (i.e., those where the risk of COVID-19 transmission was said to be widespread). The Court’s decision allowed churches in these counties to reopen at 25 percent capacity but left the state’s ban on indoor singing and chanting in place. In a separate statement, Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, noted that “California has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses.”
2. Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom
On the same day, the Supreme Court partially granted an injunction that prevented California from enforcing its total ban on indoor worship services against Harvest Rock Church while the case was being resolved in the lower courts. The decision allowed Harvest Rock and other churches in Tier 1 counties to reopen at 25 percent capacity, but it kept California’s ban on indoor singing and chanting in place. Although they joined the majority’s order, Justices Thomas and Gorsuch stated that they would have granted the injunction against the capacity limits and the ban on singing and chanting as well.
3. Gish v. Newsom
On February 8, 2021, the Supreme Court vacated a California district court’s dismissal of a case that challenged various state and local orders banning indoor worship services. The Supreme Court directed the lower court to reconsider the case in light of its recent South Bay decision.
4. Gateway City Church v. Newsom
On February 26, 2021, the Supreme Court granted an injunction that prevented enforcement of California’s restrictions against Gateway City Church. Noting that the “outcome [was] clearly dictated by [its] decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom,” the Court admonished the lower court, saying its “failure to grant relief was erroneous.”
5. Tandon v. Newsom
On April 9, 2021, the Supreme Court granted another injunction against California’s restrictions. This time, the Court addressed California’s requirement that at-home religious gatherings could not contain more than three separate households. In its opinion, the Court emphasized that “government regulations are not neutral and generally applicable . . . whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise.” The Court added that some secular activities being treated worse than religious ones is not a defense. It also stressed that the government bears the burden of showing “that measures less restrictive of the First Amendment activity could not address its interest in reducing the spread of COVID.” Because California “treat[ed] some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise” and the lower court did not find that religious activities posed more of a threat than the secular activities, the Court found that the “[a]pplicants [were] likely to succeed on the merits of their free exercise claim” and that an injunction was warranted.
6. South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom
On April 26, 2021, the Supreme Court returned to South Bay United Pentecostal Church’s case. The Court vacated the judgment of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of its decision in Tandon v. Newsom.
It is unfortunate to have seen so much discrimination against religious gatherings over the past year. For a full list of such instances, see here. May we continue to work and pray toward the protection of our freedom to gather as believers and live out our faith during this time.