Appeals court swats request to pull California’s restrictions on religious gatherings

By Jeremy B. White 10/01/2020 06:00 PM EDT

An appeals court has rebuffed a request to suspend California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s limitations on in- person worship, a measure put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The order: In a 2-1 decision Thursday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Harvest Rock Church’s argument for a preliminary injunction aimed at stopping Newsom’s directive. The church challenged Newsom’s directive on the grounds that it infringed on constitutional protections for religious freedom. But a majority of the panel noted that congregate activities like going to movie theaters, attending concerts and watching sporting events have also been curtailed or prohibited. The court also backed California’s argument that transmission risk “is elevated in indoor congregate activities, including in-person worship services.”

A district court had previously rejected the church’s application for a preliminary injunction to allow physical church gatherings to resume while the case worked its way through the courts.

Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain dissented in Thursday’s decision, writing that California was enforcing limits against “religious practices more aggressively than it does against comparable secular activities.”

Liberty Counsel founder and Chair Mat Staver lauded O’Scannlain’s dissent, saying in a statement the church was “looking forward to a full hearing on the merits of its challenge.”

“While the virus does not discriminate between nonreligious and religious gatherings, Gov. Newsom does,” Staver said, adding that “churches and people of faith have a First Amendment right to assemble and the state cannot mandate when and how people worship.”

Why it matters: The decision offers additional cover for Newsom’s position that public health imperatives allow governments to limit religious gatherings, a major point of contention around the country. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Newsom in May when another church sought quick relief on similar grounds, saying the limits California imposed “appear consistent” with the First Amendment. Four justices said they would’ve granted the injunction and suspended the restrictions.

Context: In-person worship has become a recurring flashpoint as governors and public health officials try to balance public health and constitutional freedoms.

California initially barred religious gatherings and numerous counties still prohibit in-person worship outright. Faith groups have decried those restrictions and, in some cases, openly defied the state by continuing to welcome worshipers.

The Trump administration has pressed governors to reopen religious sites throughout the pandemic. Last week, the Justice Department warned San Francisco that its rule allowing one congregant at a time into worship sites could be unconstitutional.page1image50901376page1image50899072

“No government in this free country can attack religion by transforming a house of worship arbitrarily into a place for solitary confinement,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband wrote in a letter to San Francisco Mayor London Breed. “There is no pandemic exception to the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”

What’s next? The Supreme Court may have sided with Newsom last time, but the outcome could be different if plaintiffs appeal and Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed to the high court. She could join the four conservative justices who dissented in May.

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