SCOTUS strikes down California rule restricting in-home religious gatherings

Religious liberty has been one of the most alarming casualties of the coronavirus pandemic, with Democrat governors across the country placing severe restrictions on the rights of individuals to freely worship.

In an encouraging development, however, the United States Supreme Court on Friday struck down a California rule designed to curtail in-home religious gatherings, finding that the restriction was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, as USA Today reported.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court halted California’s ability to enforce limits on in-person religious meetings taking place in homes, such as Bible study and prayer groups, as Politico noted. At the heart of the decision was California’s restriction capping indoor gatherings at no more than three different households, a stricter standard than applied to a host of other settings, with the unsigned opionion explaining:

California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise, permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants to bring together more than three households at a time.

The majority also found that the lower court failed to demonstrate that in-home religious gatherings posed a greater risk of coronavirus spread than those secular activities, and that the petitioners in the case, Rev. Jeremy Wong and Karen Busch of Santa Clara County, were “irreparably harmed by the loss of free exercise rights” guaranteed by the Constitution, as the Washington Times reported.

To the frustration of conservative court watchers, joining the minority in voting to uphold California’s restriction was Chief Justice John Roberts, though he did not sign on to a dissent issued by Justice Elena Kagan.

The dissent, which was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, argued that “California need not…treat at-home religious gatherings the same as hardware stores and hair salons. The law does not require that the State equally treat apples and watermelons,” as Politico noted, also suggesting that the majority opinion effectively hinders the ability of state officials to address public health emergencies.

This was not the first time the high court took strong action against attempts to restrict religious freedom amid the coronavirus crisis.

In November, a ruling barred New York state officials from reimposing certain limits on religious gatherings, and in February, the justices lifted California’s ban indoor worship services.

While the court’s decision – narrow as it was – to stand against California’s infringement on the fundamental religious liberty of its citizens is certainly heartening, the broader erosion of freedoms resulting from draconian COVID-19 lockdowns nationwide may prove difficult to unwind.