WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court Friday shot down a California regulation limiting religious worship at home, the latest in a series of rulings in which the justices have found that coronavirus pandemic regulations violate the First Amendment's protections of religion.
The 5-4 unsigned opinion, published just before midnight on Friday, highlighted the deep divisions over the issue, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with three liberals who dissented. The court also noted that this was the fifth time it had overturned the California-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in similar cases.
California had already announced significant changes loosening restrictions on gatherings that go into effect April 15. The changes come after infection rates have gone down in the state. But the court stressed in its opinion that such changes while a dispute is on appeal does not necessarily make the case moot.
In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, California prohibited at home gatherings in counties hard hit by the pandemic and limited those gatherings elsewhere to no more than three households. The restrictions were challenged by two Christian pastors who wanted to hold Bible studies, prayer meetings and other services in their home.
The court said California allows people to gather from more than three households in hair salons, retail stores, movie theaters and restaurants. Given that, the justices said, the state would need to show that it is more dangerous for people to gather in homes for religious services than in those other places.
"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," the court wrote. "Otherwise, precautions that suffice for other activities suffice for religious exercise too."
Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent that was joined by AssociateJustice Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In it, Kagan asserted that the court's majority was hurting state officials' ability to address a public health emergency.
"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," she wrote.
Asserting that worshipers gathering in a home are likely to spend more time there than they do a store, more likely to engage in long conversations and less likely to wear masks and practice social distancing, Kagan asserted that the majority "continues to disregard law and facts alike."
'Think long and hard': Supreme Court Justice Breyer pushes back on 'court-packing'
The court has dealt with a string of cases in which religious groups have challenged coronavirus restrictions impacting worship services. While early in the pandemic the court sided with state officials over the objection of religious groups, that changed following the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last September and her replacement by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
The court, where conservatives now have a 6-3 majority, began finding for churches other religious entities in the cases after initially siding with states. In this case, the majority included Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Barrett.
Roberts would have denied the pastors' appeals but he did not explain his reasoning and he did not join Kagan's dissent.
In November, the high court barred New York from enforcing certain limits on attendance at churches and synagogues in areas designated as hard hit by the virus. And in February, it told California that it can’t bar indoor church services because of the coronavirus pandemic, though it let stand for now a ban on singing and chanting indoors.
Contributing: Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court: California virus rules limiting home worship halted