Supreme Court Orders Review of California Restrictions on Churches

December 3, 2020 Updated: December 3, 2020

The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a review of restrictions the state of California has imposed on churches amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an unsigned order, justices said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit should reconsider a lawsuit brought by Harvest Rock Church against California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, over his harsh restrictions.

Justices said they remanded the case to the appeals court “with instructions” for further consideration in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in a case involving churches and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.

The court last week ruled 5-4 that Cuomo’s pandemic-related restrictions on attendance at houses of worship likely violated the U.S. Constitution.

“It is time—past time—to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques,” Justice Neil Gorsuch, a President Donald Trump appointee, wrote in a concurring order.

The new decision in California does not strike down Newsom’s restrictions but could lead to them being struck down.

Harvest Rock is based in Pasadena. The group of churches sued Newsom in July, arguing against his orders such as barring singing and chanting during religious worship in some counties.

gavin newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to reporters in Sacramento, Calif., on March 3, 2020. (Gabriela Bhaskar/Reuters)

“While the Governor has unilaterally and significantly restricted the number of individuals permitted to ‘gather’ in Plaintiffs’ churches, he has imposed no similar restrictions on the untold thousands of protesters who have gathered all throughout California cities with no threat of criminal sanction, and no social distancing or restrictions whatsoever. And, the Governor explicitly encouraged such large gatherings of protesters while condemning churches for signing hymns in their churches,” the 74-page complaint stated.

A district court denied the request for a preliminary injunction barring Newsom’s church-related order and the appeals court in October said Harvest Rock had not shown a likelihood of success in its argument that the district court abused its discretion by declining to enjoin the restrictions.

“The evidence that was before the district court does not support Harvest Rock’s arguments that the Orders accord comparable secular activity more favorable treatment than religious activity. The Orders apply the same restrictions to worship services as they do to other indoor congregate events, such as lectures and movie theaters,” the appeals court stated at the time.

The Supreme Court earlier this year declined to block restrictions on churches in both Nevada and California. Since then, the composition of the court has changed, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump appointee, filling a seat held by Bill Clinton appointee Ruth Bader Ginsburg after her death in September.

Matthew Vadum contributed to this report.

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