A split US Supreme Court on Friday rejected a California church emergency appeal challenging state restrictions on attendance at worship services that were imposed to curb the spread of the latest coronavirus.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined the four liberals of the court in turning away a petition from the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California, San Diego area, over the dissent of the four more conservative justices.
The church claimed that Sunday’s restrictions on how many people would attend its services violate constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and requested an order in time for services. The church said its services have audiences of 200 to 300 people.
Roberts wrote in a brief opinion that the limitations requiring churches to reopen at 25 percent of their capacity, with no more than 100 worshipers at a time, “appear to be compatible” with the First Amendment. Roberts said similar or more stringent limits apply to concerts, films, and sporting events “where large numbers of people assemble in close proximity for prolonged periods of time.”
Lower California courts had previously turned down requests from the churches.
“I wish the Supreme Court had acted to add more substantive clarification to this urgent question,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention ‘s Ethics and Religious Liberty Board.
“There is no doubt that the government has a compelling interest in limiting assemblies during pandemic periods,” he said, “but some states, including Minnesota, California and Nevada, have adopted policies that are contradictory, incoherent, and not impartial towards religious assemblies as opposed to non-religious assemblies.”
“State laws should be based on activities that can and cannot happen safely and the number of people who can be gathered — not whether the assembly is a church or not — and they should apply those criteria fairly and neutrally,” Moore said.
The court also denied an appeal from two Chicago area churches that objected to the cap of 10 worshipers at religious services set by Gov. J. B. Pritzker. Pritzker had modified the restrictions before the court acted to allow up to 100 people at a time. No dissents were recorded.