The US Supreme Court on Friday rejected South Bay United Pentecostal Church’s challenge against California Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order restricting the number of people at religious gatherings.
The majority held that the state guidelines in place “appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.” The opinion, written by Justice Kagan, stated that the “Constitution principally entrusts ‘[t]he safety and the health of the people’ to the politically accountable officials of the States.” She further wrote that the latitude granted to politically-accountable officials is especially broad when the officials are handling situations of “medical and scientific uncertainties.” Due to the seriousness of COVID-19 and its many uncertainties, the majority did not believe that the executive order had exceeded the governor’s authority.
The executive order currently allows attendance at 25 percent of the building’s capacity, or a maximum of 100 attendees at the service. The church requested an injunction on the order to allow them to hold gatherings freely.
The Supreme Court ruled five to four against the church’s request for injunctive relief, with Justices Kavanaugh, Thomas, and Gorsuch dissenting and Chief Justice Roberts concurring in the denial. The dissenting justices argued that the executive order “discriminate[s] against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses,” in violation of the First Amendment. They also thought that 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.”
The Supreme Court’s holding reflected the holding of the federal appeals court that previously heard the case. Both rulings run contrary to US President Donald Trump’s briefing on May 22 that places of worship would be considered “essential” operations, making them exempt from such restrictions.