Excessive court docket halts California virus guidelines limiting house worship

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High court halts California virus rules limiting home worship

JESSICA GRESKO, Associated Press

Posted on April 10, 2021 at 8:13 am

SHUT DOWN

FILE – This November 6, 2020 file photo shows the Supreme Court at sunset in Washington. 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 ruling on late Friday April 9, 2021 is the most recent in a series of cases where the Supreme Court has prevented officials from enforcing some coronavirus-related restrictions on religious gatherings. (Photo: AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite, File)

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.

Five Conservative judges agreed that California 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.

Parishioners gather on a beach for an Easter Sunday sunrise service hosted by Hope Community Church, Manasquan on Sunday, April 4, 2021 in Manasquan, New Jersey. (AP Photo / John Minchillo) (Photo: John Minchillo, AP)

"California treats some comparable 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 a time," 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 petitioners," 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".

Judge Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent for herself and her liberal colleagues, 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 if the state restricts all secular gatherings in private households 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".

Registered nurse Katherine Ambrose pulls out a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to give to people at a Sacramento County vaccination center on the grounds of the California Exposition & State Fair in Sacramento, Calif., On Thursday, January 21, 2021. Local officials and businesses in the 13-county Greater Sacramento area were surprised last week when outdoor restaurants and services were back in order, hair and nail salons and other businesses reopened, and retailers were able to let more shoppers into their homes. It is still a mystery how the state made the decision, or how and when it will lift the most severe restrictions on most of the state's population because officials fail to share their data. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

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 at 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 announced that it will not be able to lock down indoor services because of the coronavirus pandemic, despite the fact that it is allowing a ban on singing and chanting indoors for the time being.

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