Law & the Courts

Supreme Court Lifts California Restrictions on Private Religious Gatherings

The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. (Molly Riley/Reuters)

The Supreme Court overturned California’s restrictions on religious gatherings in private homes, in a 5–4 ruling on Friday evening.

The majority criticized the state’s restrictions on private religious gatherings, saying that California treated non-religious activities “more favorably” when implementing coronavirus-mitigation measures.

“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,” the majority wrote in an unsigned opinion. “The State has not shown that ‘public health would be imperiled’ by employing less restrictive measures” for private religious gatherings.

Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Court’s three liberal justices in voting against lifting the pandemic restrictions. However, Roberts did not explain his reasoning and did not join a dissent written by Justice Elena Kagan.

“California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households,” Kagan wrote in her opinion. “If the state also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment. And the state does exactly that: It has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike.”

Kagan added that California did not need to “treat at-home religious gatherings the same as hardware stores and hair salons,” just as “the law does not require that the state equally treat apples and watermelons.”

Since the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett in October, the Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of religious groups who contend that states’ coronavirus restrictions discriminate toward houses of worship. The Court suspended parts of California’s restrictions on indoor worship in February.

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Zachary Evans is a news writer for National Review Online. He is also a violist, and has served in the Israeli Defense Forces.


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