Supreme Court Orders Lower Court to Relook at California’s Religious Services Ban

Over no noted dissents and without an opinion, the Supreme Court ordered a federal district court to decide again whether California may ban all indoor religious services in counties most severely hit by COVID-19. The order instructs the federal district court to reconsider this case, Harvest Rock Church v. Newsome, in light of the Supreme Court decision last week in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Cuomo.

In a 5-4 decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Cuomo, the Supreme Court concluded New York’s restrictions on attending religious services in “orange” zones to 25 people and “red” zones to 10 people likely violates the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause. New York’s restrictions didn’t treat religion neutrally. In “red” zones essential businesses, including acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, and garages, may decide how many people they would like to admit. And in “yellow” zones non-essential businesses may decide how many people they would like to admit.

In Harvest Rock Church v. Newsome a federal district court in California ruled in September that the ban on indoor religious services in some counties didn’t likely violate the First Amendment because “comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances” were also restricted.  

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the lower court that the governor’s ban on indoor religious services should be allowed to remain in place. A majority of the judges noted the governor’s order “appl[ies] the same restrictions to worship services as they do to other indoor congregate events, such as lectures and movie theaters.”

A dissenting Ninth Circuit judge pointed out that different and often more lenient rules apply to “activities that might appear to be conducted in a manner similar to religious services—for example, educational events, meetings, or seminars.” The dissent continued: “The majority makes much of the fact that, at this point, the State has imposed the same attendance restrictions on some secular ‘congregate’ activities such as attending some academic lectures or going to see a movie in a theater. But the majority cannot dispute that not all such activities are so tightly restricted—such as participating in a college class in a laboratory or studio setting or attending a team meeting or film-review session in the auditorium of a professional sports facility.”