The United States Supreme Court granted temporary relief to a church fighting a legal battle against California over its restrictions on in-person worship gatherings. Harvest Rock Church and others filed suit against California over ongoing shutdown orders instituted by Gov. Gavin Newsom that they argued are in violation of their religious freedom.
In the Thursday order, the Supreme Court provided “injunctive relief” for the church, vacating a September ruling against the church by a district court.
“The application for injunctive relief, presented to Justice Kagan and by her referred to the Court, is treated as a petition for a writ of certiorari before judgment, and the petition is granted,” read the brief order.
The Supreme Court cited its recent 5-4 ruling in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo to justify granting the relief and sending the case back to the district court. In that case, the high court majority blocked New York from implementing certain lockdown restrictions on a Roman Catholic diocese and an Orthodox Jewish community.
“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” read the opinion in Cuomo.
“The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”
In July, Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry which includes multiple member churches, filed suit against California over its ongoing restrictions in its response to COVID-19. The suit argued that Newsom’s order from July banning indoor worship in as many as 30 counties also bans members from gathering at each other’s homes for Bible studies in said counties. In October, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled 2-1 against Harvest Rock, arguing that they were not being wrongly treated.
“The Orders apply the same restrictions to worship services as they do to other indoor congregate events, such as lectures and movie theaters. Some congregate activities are completely prohibited in every county, such as attending concerts and spectating sporting events,” stated the majority opinion.
Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain authored a dissent in which he disagreed, arguing that in 18 counties, houses of worship are put under stricter standards than most secular entities.
“… in these same counties, the State still allows people to go indoors to: spend a day shopping in the mall, have their hair styled, get a manicure or pedicure, attend college classes, produce a television show or movie, participate in professional sports, wash their clothes at a laundromat, and even work in a meatpacking plant,” wrote O’Scannlain.
“The Constitution allows a State to impose certain calculated, neutral restrictions—even against churches and religious believers—necessary to combat emergent threats to public health. But the Constitution, emphatically, does not allow a State to pursue such measures against religious practices more aggressively than it does against comparable secular activities.”