Supreme Court Rules for Worshipper in California on Church Restrictions

Supreme Court Rules for Worshipper in California on Church Restrictions
The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., on May 12, 2020. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

After a series of recent pro-worshipper rulings, the Supreme Court granted a California worshipper’s emergency application asking for the state’s far-reaching restrictions on in-person religious services to be rolled back.

The ruling, in the case known as Gish v. Newsom, came late on Feb. 8 after applicants filed an emergency application for an injunction a month ago. Wendy Gish, one of the four worshippers who brought the application, attends Shield of Faith Family Church in San Bernardino County, California.

The application was referred to Justice Elena Kagan, who referred it to the full court.

“The application for injunctive relief ... is treated as a petition for a writ of certiorari before judgment, and the petition is granted,” stated the unsigned order in court file No. 20A120.

The high court didn’t provide any rationale for its ruling, in which it overruled the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. It instructed that the case be returned to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California “for further consideration in light of” the Supreme Court’s previous 6–3 ruling in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, which held that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s restrictions violated First Amendment-protected freedom of worship guarantees.

Gish’s counsel of record, Mark P. Meuser of Dhillon Law Group Inc. in San Francisco, told The Epoch Times in an interview that the new ruling is “an exciting victory for all believers in the state of California.

“It is sad that it took them so long to allow houses of worship to open in the state,” he said.

“This lawsuit was originally filed back in April, when the governor shut down churches throughout the state. The District Court judge used an erroneous statement and allowed the church to remain closed, and our clients are pleased that they finally were vindicated in court.”

“This was one of the first church cases brought in the nation. People have to understand that sometimes it takes a while to get the right decision.”

In briefs, the applicant stated that Newsom, a Democrat, and “unelected public health bureaucrats on the State and County level have issued executive orders and public health directives to help control the spread of COVID-19 which prohibit in-person religious services or otherwise restrict in-person religious gatherings more strictly than secular activities.”

Those executive orders and public health directives were “harshly and unconditionally limiting” worship by congregations, while at the same time allowing “shopping malls, marijuana dispensaries, grocery stores, repair shops, childcare facilities, airports, public transportation, and other services to open at reduced capacity, depending on which ‘Tier’ a region or county currently stands,” the litigants argued in the application.
The decision comes after the Supreme Court granted part of the relief requested on Feb. 5 to another California church in Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom. In that order, the high court rolled back some of the heavy-handed restrictions that Newsom had imposed on churches amid the current pandemic.

The court lifted the ban on in-person worship in the “Tier 1” area of the state and allowed Newsom to enforce a 25 percent attendance limitation on indoor worship services in that tier. At the same time, it refused to disturb the governor’s ban on singing and chanting during indoor services, which he claimed made it easier for the novel coronavirus to be transmitted.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch indicated they would have granted the application in full. Justice Samuel Alito indicated he would have lifted the attendance restrictions and the ban on singing and chanting indoors.

In a sharply worded dissent, the three liberal justices disagreed. The dissent, by Kagan, stated, “Justices of this Court are not scientists. Nor do we know much about public health policy. Yet today, the Court displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging pandemic.”

“The Court orders California to weaken its restrictions on public gatherings by making a special exception for worship services. The majority does so even though the State’s policies treat worship just as favorably as secular activities (including political assemblies) that, according to medical evidence, pose the same risk of COVID transmission. Under the Court’s injunction, the State must instead treat worship services like secular activities that pose a much lesser danger.”

Newsom’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.