Court Battles

Supreme Court says California must allow in-home prayer meetings

The Supreme Court late Friday said that California must lift its coronavirus-era restrictions on in-home prayer meetings and other forms of home-based religious gatherings. 

In an order from the court, five conservative justices wrote against rules in most parts of the state that limit indoor social gatherings to no more than three households, while different restrictions apply to places such as schools and churches. 

"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 to bring together more than three households at a time," the justices said. 

Additionally, the justices noted that a lower court in its ruling "did not conclude that those activities pose a lesser risk of transmission than applicants' proposed religious exercise at home." 

While California has announced changes to its coronavirus safety restrictions, including policies on gatherings, the high court wrote Friday that "the previous restrictions remain in place until April 15th, and officials with a track record of 'moving the goalposts' retain authority to reinstate those heightened restrictions at any time."

Friday's order indicated that Chief Justice John Roberts would have denied the application for the case to be considered by the court, while Justice Elena Kagan wrote for herself and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor in dissenting. 

Kagan on behalf of the liberal justices argued, "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 continued. "California need not ... treat at-home religious gatherings the same as hardware stores and hair salons." 

Kagan went on to say that "the law does not require that the State equally treat apples and watermelons."

The order in favor of at-home religious gatherings provides an additional win to religious groups, which have argued that they have been unfairly targeted by coronavirus-related safety restrictions in several states. 

In a February 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that California could not ban indoor worship but could cap gatherings at 25 percent capacity. 

California had barred indoor worship services and other indoor activities such as dining in areas designated as "Tier 1" amid a wave of coronavirus infections. 

In November, the court ruled 5-4 against New York coronavirus restrictions on gatherings in churches and synagogues. 

The justice in the unsigned majority opinion sided with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, which had argued that New York's restrictions on the number of people who could attend services in areas designated as coronavirus hot spots were more restrictive than limits on other groups, therefore violating the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

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