Supreme Court Rules on Church Gathering Restrictions

On Friday, May 29, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in an important case involving church re-opening.

In South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, a California church sued to challenge Gov. Gavin Newsom’s attendance limits on church gatherings. Gov. Newsom has directed churches and other religious groups to limit gatherings to 100 people or 25% of building capacity, whichever amount is lower. The petitioner sued for an injunction blocking enforcement, asserting that the 25% cap is unconstitutional because a similar cap was not placed on secular businesses.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court declined the requested injunction. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Court’s four liberal justices in ruling that Gov. Newsom’s order did not violate the First Amendment. In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Roberts emphasized that the type of relief requested in this case is available “where ‘the legal rights at issue are indisputably clear’ and, even then, ‘sparingly and only in the most critical and exigent circumstances.’” Chief Justice Roberts also noted the broad authority accorded to the states to protect public health and safety. In the view of the Chief Justice:

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.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh penned a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch. Justice Kavanaugh asserted that the State of California had violated the First Amendment by subjecting churches to a 25% occupancy cap that does not apply to “comparable secular businesses” such as “factories, offices, supermarkets, restaurants, retail stores, pharmacies, shopping malls, pet grooming shops, bookstores, florists, hair salons, and cannabis dispensaries.” Justice Kavanaugh added that the State of California had not offered a compelling justification for treating churches differently than it treated secular businesses.