A U.S. Supreme Court ruling late Wednesday, Nov. 25, upholding certain rights to gather for religious services in New York was a Thanksgiving gift of sorts for faith leaders throughout Southern California that had blasted similar state and county health orders.
It was unclear, however, what effect if any the high court ruling would have on religious service restrictions in California. Nonetheless, Catholic and Jewish leaders — along with pastors of some megachurches — heralded the decision as a victory for religious freedom.
Late Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision struck down an order by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that had restricted the size of religious gatherings in certain areas of New York where infection rates were rising most dramatically.
In those areas where cases were highest, the state restricted churches and other houses of worship with 10-person and 25-person capacity limits. The court’s order addressed two applications, one brought on behalf of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and the other by two synagogues, an Orthodox Jewish organization and two individuals.
In Manhattan Beach, Rabbi Yossi Mintz, who leads the Jewish Community Center, said it’s about time that religious groups got a win.
“The question I always had was why was it okay for all the large box stores to be open, salons, dispensaries, casinos and tattoo parlors, but yet houses of worship were limited to much less capacity than all these places,” Mintz wrote in a statement. “I completely agree that we must have guidelines but it needs to be across the board and respect the freedom that our fathers granted us through the establishment of our great country.”
Pastor Greg Laurie, who heads Harvest Christian Fellowship church with campuses in Irvine and the Inland Empire, said he applauded the ruling but would continue to hold church services outside in accordance with public health guidance. Laurie joined a coalition of 1,200 pastors in California in May with an ultimatum to Gov. Gavin Newsom that either the state lifted the ban on religious services or they would gather anyway.
California allowed houses of worship to reopen in May for indoor services with restrictions but later ordered them closed again in July, allowing only outdoor services under the most restrictive guidelines in a four-tiered system. Laurie later contracted the coronavirus in October.
“There is no question that church is essential and maybe that is more true today than any other time,” Laurie said in a statement. “Harvest is holding services outside because we want to keep people safe, yet give them an opportunity to worship together…. We practice social distancing and strongly encourage the wearing of masks.”
In the court’s most recent ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the three “liberal” justices. Newly appointed Justice Amy Coney Barret sided with the majority, marking a reversal from an earlier decision by the court upholding certain restrictions on religious services. In this latest ruling, Justice Gorsuch wrote that the Constitution did not align with treating churches differently from liquor stores.
“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,” Gorsuch wrote.
In an earlier 5-4 decision — with Roberts siding with the liberal wing, which at that time included Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — the Supreme Court upheld California’s public health order that prevented churches from gathering at the outset of the pandemic.
“Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment,” the Chief Justice wrote in an opinion concurring with the ruling in May.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, sweeping public health restrictions have devastated businesses and suspended some common freedoms along the way causing many people to call into question the constitutional nature, or lack thereof, for a whole host of public health orders.
Where public health and the Constitution seem to collide the fiercest surrounded the question of religious freedom, one of the pillars of constitutional rights in America. It has been no surprise that leaders of churches and other religious organizations have at times fought vigorously to practice their faiths in ways they see fit, public health orders or not.
Some churches have openly defied health orders such as Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, which has been vocal about its opposition. The Thomas More Society, whose attorneys represented the church in efforts to oppose L.A. County health orders, applauded the Supreme Court ruling this week.
Special counsel for the group, Paul Jonna, predicted the recent ruling would have an effect on California’s restrictions.
“As it currently stands, the ruling only applies to New York — but that is likely to change in the coming days or weeks as lower courts and even the U.S. Supreme Court will be presented with similar applications concerning the restrictions in California,” Jonna wrote in a statement.
“The rationale underpinning the November 25 ruling clearly applies just the same in California,” Jonna said. “Indeed, unlike New York, indoor religious services are totally banned in most of California. The restrictions on houses of worship in California are not narrowly tailored and cannot satisfy strict scrutiny.”
Among the cases that potentially could arrive at the Supreme Court soon was one out of Pasadena where attorneys representing Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry sought intervention from the nation’s highest court in an emergency petition filed Wednesday, Nov. 25. In it, the churches are asking the court to approve an injunction against the state-imposed coronavirus restrictions before Sunday, Nov. 29.
“During his nine-month reign of executive edicts subjugating Californian’s to restrictions unknown to constitutional law, the governor continues to impose draconian and unconscionable prohibitions on the daily life of all Californians,” attorneys with the Liberty Counsel, which is representing the ministry, wrote in the petition.
In Seal Beach, Rev. Tia Wildermuth of First United Methodist Church said she understands the general need for a separation of church and state, but “we need to be careful in these precarious times.”
The little church sits on a tight lot in Seal Beach with room for 80 people in the pews, at most. The only outdoor space is a small parking lot behind the church, so outdoor services are not an option like they are for other houses of worship around Orange County.
“Social distancing and masking would not work, so we’re just doing the best we can online,” she said.
Wildermuth said she has no problem with California’s current pandemic guidelines and would think twice about reverting back to indoor services, if allowed, because of the age makeup of the majority of her congregation and the danger COVID-19 poses to them.
“They’re older people,” she said. “I personally can’t have that on my conscience, that I would lead something that would end up with someone getting ill, or worse — dying.”
Staff writers Ian Wheeler and Jennifer Iyer contributed to this report.
Source: Orange County Register