Supreme Court Orders New Look at California Worship-Service Limits

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The U.S. Supreme Court told a federal trial judge to take a fresh look at assertions that California is infringing religious rights by banning indoor worship services in most of the state amid a resurgence of Covid-19 cases.

The high court’s one-paragraph order Thursday hints at the possible ripple effects of its decision last week blocking strict capacity limits on New York churches and synagogues. The justices, without any noted dissents, set aside U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal’s decision allowing the California restrictions, telling him to reconsider in light of the New York ruling.

Under the restrictions imposed in July by Governor Gavin Newsom, California bars indoor worship services -- as well as indoor dining, movie screenings and other gatherings -- in counties designated as “tier 1” because of high Covid numbers. All but six of California’s 58 counties were “tier 1” as of Dec. 1.

Harvest Rock Church, which seats 1,250 people in its Pasadena facility, sued to challenge the rules, saying they unconstitutionally favor secular gatherings, including non-worship activities that take place inside a church building. The church’s affiliated Harvard International Ministry joined the lawsuit.

Bernal and then a divided appeals court backed the state, pointing to evidence that the risk of spreading the virus is especially high in settings like church services where large groups gather for an extended period.

California on Wednesday reported 20,759 new coronavirus infections, shattering the previous record of 18,350 hit just last week. The rate of positive tests jumped to 6.9% from 6.5% Tuesday, according to state health department data, reaching the highest level since early August.

Hospitalizations, also at a record, climbed 3.4% to 9,365 patients. Newsom said this week that deeper restrictions on residents may be coming if trends fail to improve, warning that intensive-care units may become overwhelmed later this month.

New York Decision

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the New York case said those rules discriminated against houses of worship because neighboring stores and businesses were allowed to admit more people. The rules, which had already been lifted but might have been reimposed, targeted Covid hotspots in Brooklyn and Queens.

The Supreme Court in May refused to second-guess California’s then-applicable limits on the size of worship services, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the court’s liberal wing in the majority. Since then, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died and been replaced by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, shifting the court’s balance to the right.

In August, Harvest Rock’s defiance of the shutdown order prompted Pasadena officials to send a letter threatening prosecution.

The case is Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom, 20A94.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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