In-person religious meeting capacity limits were lifted in California Monday following a U.S. Supreme Court decision made over the weekend.
Since last year, the state has attempted to limit indoor religious services and meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many churches have brought the state to court with varying degrees of success. A July 2020 singing ban instituted by Governor Gavin Newsom spurred several churches across California to sue the state, with a large wave of indoor gathering bans, reversals, and reinstatements happening following the second state lockdown late last year.
Many of these cases were brought to higher courts, including a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in February that said that the singing and chanting ban could stay in place, but indoor services must be allowed. This led to the Tandon v. Newsom decision during the weekend, with justices voting 5-4 to stop California’s ban on at-home, in-person religious meetings such as prayer groups and bible discussion.
The court found that California had violated the first amendment in their COVID-19 pandemic regulations, specifically violating religious protections and noted that California was now allowing larger groups to congregate in commercial places compared to groups at home.
“California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise, permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants to bring together more than three households at a time,” outlined the opinion of the five conservative justices minus Chief Justice John Roberts. “Where the government permits other activities to proceed with precautions, it must show that the religious exercise at issue is more dangerous than those activities even when the same precautions are applied. Otherwise, precautions that suffice for other activities suffice for religious exercise too.”
In a dissent, the three liberal justices argued that ruling in favor would greatly harm a state’s ability to confront a crisis or future health emergency or pandemic.
“California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households. If the state also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment,” said Associate Justice Elena Kagan in a dissent. ““California need not treat at-home religious gatherings the same as hardware stores and hair salons. The law does not require that the State equally treat apples and watermelons.”
Religious meeting limits lifted on Monday, state says capacity limits are now only ‘strongly recommended’
With the ruling firmly in place, California quickly changed it’s indoor worship services rules during the weekend to take effect on Monday. While the limits against them have been lifted, the state added that they strongly recommend putting capacity limits in place until the pandemic is over, Specifically, the California Department of Public Health advised a 25% capacity for higher reopening tiers, and 50% capacity for lower reopening tiers
“Location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory, but are strongly recommended,” said the Department of Health in their new guidelines on Monday.
Those in favor of the removal of at-home, indoor religious meeting bans celebrated on Monday, noting that the freedom of religion is now more in-tact because of the decision.
“Governor Newsom should have done this a long time ago,” said Harmeet Dhillon, the founder of the Center for American Liberty, a group which had filed many of the religious service and meeting lawsuits against California and Governor Newsom, on Monday. “For over a year, the state of California has targeted the faith community for discriminatory treatment depriving them of their fundamental right to worship.”
Those who run such services also applauded the new changes.
“For the first time in over a year I can now have a group of people come into my home and discuss a Torah passage,” said David Berg, who runs a Jewish study group in Los Angeles, to the Globe. “I never thought I would ever say those words, especially after my family had left Europe in 1939, but here we are.
“Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, it doesn’t matter what. We were told we couldn’t express and discuss our religion. That’s wrong. Even with the pandemic, that is fundamentally wrong. But at least the Supreme Court saw the issue for what it was.”
Other remaining religious service blocking controversies due to COVID-19 regulations in California are expected through court action, through state legislature bills, and by further California reopenings in the coming months.
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