Supreme Court Strikes Down County Ban on Indoor Religious Services

In Gateway City Church v. Gavin Newsom, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Santa Clara County, California, stay-at-home order disallowing indoor religious services.

In February 2021, in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, a divided Supreme Court struck down California’s ban on indoor religious services in places most affected by COVID-19, while allowing a 25% capacity limitation to remain in place.

Following the South Bay decision, Santa Clara County disallowed all indoor gatherings, including worship services, but allowed both religious and secular establishments to operate at 20% capacity for any purpose other than hosting gatherings. The Ninth Circuit preliminary agreed with the district court that this directive didn’t violate the First Amendment because it applied “equally to all indoor gatherings of any kind or type, whether public or private, religious or secular.”

Gateway City Church asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s decision on an emergency basis. The church argued disallowing indoor religious services unconstitutionally discriminates against religion because numerous businesses are allowed to operate at 20%, including grocery stores and nail salons, while house of worship could operate “at 0% capacity for indoor worship services.” Likewise, airport gates aren’t considered a “gathering” despite the fact that numerous people congregate in a limited space for about 45-90 minutes.

Santa Clara County argued that South Bay’s “holding and analysis do not apply here because the County has no restrictions that are specific to religious worship services or religious facilities.” Santa Clara noted places of worship are open to the public at 20% capacity for any purpose other than gatherings, including praying, “one-on-one counseling, making an offering, obtaining a religious item, volunteering for community service, or managing administrative affairs.”

In a one-paragraph, unauthored statement, the Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit decision stating this case is “clearly dictated” by South Bay. The Court offered no other reasoning for its decision.

Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor indicated they dissented in Gateway City Church for the same reason they dissented in South Bay:  all indoor public gatherings were banned whether secular or religious.

The day before the Court ruled in this case Santa Clara County filed a letter saying that if COVID cases continued to decline, as soon as March 3, it would allow indoor worship services to resume “up to the same capacity as all other indoor facilities that are open to the public in Santa Clara County.” The Supreme Court acted on Gateway City Church’s emergency motion regardless.