Supreme Court rejects appeals to lift restrictions on congregation size

Franciscan friars pray at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Butler, N.J., April 11, 2020. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals to lift restrictions limiting congregation sizes May 29 during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A divided Supreme Court May 29 chose not to intervene in an emergency appeal by a church in Southern California to lift COVID-19 restrictions that limit congregation sizes.

The justices responded just before midnight with a 5-4 vote in the case filed May 26 by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California, near San Diego. The church had argued that California Gov. Gavin Newsom's reopening orders violated the Constitution because they placed fewer restrictions on some secular businesses than they did on houses of worship.


The church wanted to hold its regular services Sunday, May 31, on Pentecost. Currently, the state's restrictions limit church attendance to 100 attendees or 25% of the church capacity, whichever is lower.

"The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in an opinion concurring with the unsigned ruling.

[Explore all of America’s in-depth coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

[Don’t miss the latest news from the church and the world. Sign up for our daily newsletter.]

In his five-paragraph opinion, Roberts stressed these guidelines appear "consistent with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment."

"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," he wrote.

He also said the state's 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."

The chief justice also noted that COVID-19 has killed thousands of people in California and more than 100,000 in the United States with still "no known cure, no effective treatment and no vaccine." He also noted people "may be infected but asymptomatic" and could unknowingly infect others. The state's order restricting crowd sizes, he said, was a means to "address this extraordinary health emergency."

[Want to discuss politics with other America readers? Join our Facebook discussion group, moderated by America’s writers and editors.]

A three-page dissent written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, argued that restrictions on the number of participants at church services did violate the Constitution.

Kavanaugh argued that businesses that are not subject to size restrictions, such as supermarkets, restaurants, hair salons and cannabis dispensaries, are comparable to gatherings at houses of worship.

"The church and its congregants simply want to be treated equally," he wrote, adding that California "trusts its residents and any number of businesses to adhere to proper social distancing and hygiene practices."

Richard Garnett, law school professor at the University of Notre Dame and director of the university's Program on Church, State and Society, said the court's decision shows how "it can be challenging to identify discrimination or unequal treatment."

"It is well established that governments and officials may not discriminate against religious activities, even when it is regulating in the interest of the public good. Religious freedom is not absolute, and it is subject to limits, but regulations may not single out religious exercise for disapproval or disadvantage," he said.

In a statement, Garnett said arguments about equality and discrimination involve the question: "compared to what?" And in this case, the justices disagreed about what kinds of activities church services should be compared to for public health purposes.

Kavanaugh said the same rules for stores should apply to churches and the court's majority said the same restrictions on churches also are applied to gatherings like concerts, movie showings, spectator sports and theatrical performances.

Garnett said the ruling "does not necessarily mean that California's current regulations are justified or constitutional or that they would be upheld after more developed and careful review."

Charles LiMandri, special counsel to the Thomas More Society, a national nonprofit law firm based in Chicago that represented the California church, said the court's ruling was disappointing, but the case is "far from over."

He said the decision was based on "the high standard required to get an emergency injunction" but the case would likely make its way to the high court again and the next time it should get "a better result for religious liberty."

On May 29, the court also, without noted dissent, turned down a request from two Romanian American Christian churches in the Chicago area arguing that Illinois' reopening guidelines, with its 10-person limit for houses of worship, violated the Constitution.

In a two-paragraph order, the court said the state's public health department had just issued new guidance on church-participation restrictions May 28 and the churches could file "a new motion for appropriate relief if circumstances warrant."

We don’t have comments turned on everywhere anymore. We have recently relaunched the commenting experience at America and are aiming for a more focused commenting experience with better moderation by opening comments on a select number of articles each day.

But we still want your feedback. You can join the conversation about this article with us in social media on Twitter or Facebook, or in one of our Facebook discussion groups for various topics.

Or send us feedback on this article with one of the options below:

We welcome and read all letters to the editor but, due to the volume received, cannot guarantee a response.

In order to be considered for publication, letters should be brief (around 200 words or less) and include the author’s name and geographic location. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

We open comments only on select articles so that we can provide a focused and well-moderated discussion on interesting topics. If you think this article provides the opportunity for such a discussion, please let us know what you'd like to talk about, or what interesting question you think readers might want to respond to.

If we decide to open comments on this article, we will email you to let you know.

If you have a message for the author, we will do our best to pass it along. Note that if the article is from a wire service such as Catholic News Service, Religion News Service, or the Associated Press, we will not have direct contact information for the author. We cannot guarantee a response from any author.

We welcome any information that will help us improve the factual accuracy of this piece. Thank you.

Please consult our Contact Us page for other options to reach us.

When you click submit, this article page will reload. You should see a message at the top of the reloaded page confirming that your feedback has been received.


The latest from america

Prelates lead a protest in Abuja, Nigeria, over unending killings of Nigerians March 1, 2020. Nigerian bishops called on the international community to help the West African country in its fight against ethnic insecurity and terrorist groups such as Boko Haram. (CNS photo/Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters)
Increasingly brutal attacks on Christian villages have been explained as the result of conflict over diminishing resources.
Kevin ClarkeJuly 02, 2020
Cardinal Charles Maung Bo has appealed to Christians and all people of faith “to pray for Hong Kong” following the imposition by China of a new national security law.
Gerard O’ConnellJuly 02, 2020
A cartoon series from a decade ago proves to have profound lessons for today.
(CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters; CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)
Broken down between white and Hispanic Catholics, the numbers show a stark divide.