California banned congregants from meeting inside their own homes, citing the COVID-19 pandemic to justify infringing on the First Amendment’s freedom of religion. But the U.S. Supreme Court last week issued an injunction against that order. Though the order was set to expire, the justices decided to issue a ruling on the matter.
The Center for American Liberty, which represented the plaintiffs, announced that the court’s decision is the “fifth time in a matter of months that the Court has ruled against Governor Newsom and rejected analysis from the Ninth Circuit…And this latest decision marks the third SCOTUS victory for the Center for American Liberty (South Bay and Gish previously).”
The decision was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts dissenting with the liberal justices.
In the decision (PDF – six pages), the court contended that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit erred when it failed to grant an injunction against the state pending an appeal. Government regulations against religion “are not neutral and generally applicable, and therefore trigger strict scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause, whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise.” The plaintiffs “are likely to succeed on the merits of their free exercise claim; they are irreparably harmed by the loss of free exercise rights ‘for even minimal periods of time…'” The court said California treats comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious activities.
“Here, in the case of a rule banning different families from gathering in a private home to pray together, the Court recognized that any time the government burdens religious activity with special rules, it must bear the burden of strict scrutiny, and in this case, it could not meet that test,” CEO of the Center for American Liberty Harmeet K. Dhillon said. “We are grateful that the First Amendment rights of our clients were recognized by the Court in overturning the 9th Circuit.”