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Supreme Court halts California's COVID-19 limits on home worship gatherings

Supreme Court halts California's COVID-19 limits on home worship gatherings
A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Friday that California must allow people to gather for at-home worship without limiting size of gatherings to three households. File Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo

April 10 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court ruled that California cannot enforce its COVID-19 restrictions limiting number of households gathered in a home for worship to three.

The 5-4 ruling, which was released late Friday, overturns the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit, which denied motion to prohibit enforcement of restrictions on such gatherings, calling the lower court's decision "erroneous." The majority opinion wasn't signed but included Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, who was confirmed in October.

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Pastors Jeremy Wong and Karen Busch had argued the restrictions violated right to free exercise of religion, and business owner appellants, such as Ritesh Tandon, named on the suit, had argued that California Gov. Gavin Newsom's restrictions violated First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

"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 unsigned majority opinion said Friday.

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In February, the Supreme Court also ordered California to allow indoor church services in Tier 1 counties, identified as having more than seven daily new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people.

"This is the fifth time the court has summarily rejected the Ninth Circuit's analysis of California's COVID restrictions on religious exercise," the majority noted.

Chief Justice John Roberts joined Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor in dissenting.

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Kagan, who wrote the dissent, said the state was complying with the First Amendment since it was not treating religious gatherings any differently than secular ones. California's restrictions also limited secular gatherings in one home to three households.

"It has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike," Kagan wrote.

Furthermore, Kagan said in the dissent that at-home gatherings pose more risk for COVID-19 infection than commercial activities for three reasons. First, the interactions tend to be longer. Second, homes tends to be smaller and less ventilated. Third, people are less likely to social distance and wear masks.

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