The Supreme Court of the United States of America on Friday rejected the application for temporary injunction moved by South Bay Pentecostal Church against the restrictions imposed by Governor of California on attendance in places of worship as part of COVID-19 control measures.
In response to COVID-19 pandemic, the Governor of California passed an executive order limiting attendance at places of worship to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees.
The majority - Chief Justice Roberts, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan- declined the prayer for stay on the regulations.
"The notion that it is "indisputably clear" that the Government's limitations are unconstitutional seems quite improbable", observed Chief Justice Roberts.
It was observed that the restrictions appeared to be consistent with the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
"Although California's guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time. And the Order exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks, and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods", the Chief Justice observed.
The majority opined that the question of when to lift the restrictions was "dynamic and fact-intensive". The heath and safety of the people are entrusted with the politically accountable officials of the States. When those officials "undertake to act in areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties," their latitude "must be especially broad."
Where those broad limits are not exceeded, they should not be subject to second-guessing by an "unelected federal judiciary," which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people, said the majority quoting from precedents.
"That is especially true where, as here, a party seeks emergency relief in an interlocutory posture, while local officials are actively shaping their response to changing facts on the ground", the majority said.
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanugh dissented holding that safety guidelines discriminate against places of worship in favor of comparable secular businesses, violating the First Amendment.
"The basic constitutional problem is that comparable secular businesses are not subject to a 25% occupancy cap, including factories, offices, supermarkets, restaurants, retail stores, pharmacies, shopping malls, pet grooming shops,bookstores, florists, hair salons, and cannabis dispensaries", Justice Kavanugh noted in the dissent.
"To justify its discriminatory treatment of religious worship services, California must show that its rules are "justified by a compelling governmental interest" and "narrowly tailored to advance that interest." California undoubtedly has a compelling interest in combating the spread of COVID–19 and protecting the health of its citizens. But "restrictions inexplicably applied to one group and exempted from another do little to further these goals and do much to burden religious freedom", he added.
"California has not shown such a justification. The Church has agreed to abide by the State's rules that apply to comparable secular businesses. That raises important questions: "Assuming all of the same precautions are taken, why can someone safely walk down a grocery store aisle but not a pew? And why can someone safely interact with a brave delivery woman but not with a stoic minister?"
California has ample options that would allow it to combat the spread of COVID–19 without discriminating against religion.
"The State also has substantial room to draw lines, especially in an emergency. But as relevant here, the Constitution imposes one key restriction on that line-drawing: The State may not discriminate against religion".
"In sum, California's 25% occupancy cap on religious worship services indisputably discriminates against religion, and such discrimination violates the First Amendment. The Church would suffer irreparable harm from not being able to hold services on Pentecost Sunday in a way that comparable secular businesses and persons can conduct their activities", concluded the dissenting judgment.
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