(CN) — The divided U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that California can’t ban indoor church services due to Covid-19, but may continue to enforce a ban on singing and chanting indoors.
In a late Friday night decision, the high court ruled 6-3 in two cases brought by the Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena and the South Bay United Church in Chula Vista. While the court struck down the ban, it did find that the state could limit religious services to 25% capacity.
The churches, which filed emergency requests with the Supreme Court, argued that the state violated their First Amendment religious rights by enacting the ban. State officials said the ban was made to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that while “federal courts owe significant deference to politically accountable officials” due to public health regulations, he said that deference “has its limits.”
“The State has concluded, for example, that singing indoors poses a heightened risk of transmitting Covid–19. I see no basis in this record for overriding that aspect of the state public health framework,” Roberts wrote in a concurring opinion. “At the same time, the State’s present determination — that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero — appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.”
A joint concurring opinion by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito said they would have lifted all restrictions. They wrote that they believed the state gave favored treatment to “lucrative industries” in determining Covid-19 restrictions, saying that California “openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses.”
“If Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry,” they wrote.
Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh joined in a brief opinion that addressed the state’s ban on singing and chanting, questioning if it applied to all sectors.
“Of course, if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral,” she wrote.
The court’s liberal wing dissented from the majority, writing that they would have upheld the state’s ban.
“I fervently hope that the Court’s intervention will not worsen the Nation’s Covid crisis. But if this decision causes suffering, we will not pay. Our marble halls are now closed to the public, and our life tenure forever insulates us from responsibility for our errors. That would seem good reason to avoid disrupting a State’s pandemic response. But the Court forges ahead regardless, insisting that science-based policy yield to judicial edict,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a scathing dissent.
Charles LiMandri, attorney for South Bay United Pentecostal church, said in a statement that he thanked the Supreme Court “for upholding religious liberty.”
Governor Gavin Newsom’s office said Saturday that it will release new guidelines following the court’s decision.
“We will continue to enforce the restrictions the Supreme Court left in place and, after reviewing the decision, we will issue revised guidelines for worship services to continue to protect the lives of Californians,” Daniel Lopez, Newsom’s press secretary, said in a statement.