Divided court blocks California’s COVID-related restrictions on in-home religious gatherings

front of Supreme Court lit up at night


By Amy Howe

at 1:30 a.m.

A split Supreme Court ordered a California pastor Friday night to lift COVID-related restrictions on Bible study and prayer meetings at home. The ruling, passed just before midnight, was the latest in a series of challenges that went back almost to the start of the pandemic and put restrictions on face-to-face meetings. Chief Justice John Roberts stated that he had denied the request; Judge Elena Kagan submitted a dissenting opinion, which was followed by Judges Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Pastor Jeremy Wong and others came to the Supreme Court last week and asked the judges to hold Bible study and prayer meetings in their homes. They told the court that by banning such gatherings or restricting them to no more than three households, depending on COVID rates, while allowing people to congregate for various secular activities, the state exercised its right to the first Amendment violates their congregations freely practicing religion. They asked the judges for an emergency injunction preventing the state from enforcing the policy while they continued to hear the matter in the lower courts.

In a brief filed on Thursday, California countered that its policy applies to all congregations, regardless of whether they are secular or religious. In any case, the state added, there is no need for judges to interfere in this dispute as COVID rates have improved in California and politics will soon be eased: the state planned to hold such gatherings as of April 15 to allow.

In an unsigned statement, the majority wrote that the U.S. appeals court was “flawed” for the 9th Circuit’s failure to put California’s COVID restrictions on hold. The Supreme Court’s rulings in previous challenges to COVID-related restrictions have “clarified several points”, judges said. Among other things, the majority emphasized, government regulations are subject to closer scrutiny if they treat secular activities more favorably than religious activities. It doesn’t matter that the state also treats some secular businesses or activities badly. Furthermore, the majority said, a case could remain a living controversy even if the government changes policy – especially if, as here, “Officials with a track record of moving the goalposts retain the authority to reintroduce these tightened restrictions at any time. ”

In her contradiction, Kagan argued that the first amendment “requires that a state treat religious behavior in the same way as the state treat similar secular behavior”. So, she wrote, California did by introducing “a blanket limit on all types of home gatherings.” California doesn’t need to treat religious gatherings at home “the same way as hardware stores and hair salons,” she said.

This article was originally published by Howe on the Court.