SCOTUS Rules California Cannot Restrict In-Home Religious Services

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The Supreme Court ruled late Friday to lift restrictions on religious gatherings in private homes in the latest decision regarding the Golden State’s dictates for worship amid the pandemic.

In the 5-4 unsigned decision, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett argued that the state of California needs to prove that in-home religious gatherings pose more of a direct threat than other comparable secular gatherings before they can restrict such meetings.

“Government regulations are not neutral and generally applicable,” the ruling stated, and should be examined closely “whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise.”

“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,” the opinion read, according to The New York Times.

The justices also noted that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals seems to have consistently failed to come to a fair ruling on the constitutionality of California’s COVID-era restrictions on houses of worship.

“This is the fifth time the court has summarily rejected the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of California’s Covid restrictions on religious exercise,” the ruling also stated.

The high court’s Chief Justice John G. Roberts, often considered to be the “swing vote” of the SCOTUS, joined the court’s three liberal Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer in dissenting. He did not join the minority opinion, however, and did not state his reasoning for dissent.

The minority justices wrote in their opinion that they believed the Golden State had stayed within the bounds of the First Amendment by restricting in-home worship and meetings.

“The First Amendment requires that a state treat religious conduct as well as the state treats comparable secular conduct. Sometimes finding the right secular analogue may raise hard questions. But not today,” Justice Kagan wrote.

“California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households. If the state also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment. And the state does exactly that: It has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike,” she also stated.

The ruling comes after California Governor Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 restrictions were challenged by Rev. Jeremy Wong and Karen Busch of Santa Clara County, who had been prevented from holding in-home prayer meetings.

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