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Roberts sides with liberals as Supreme Court backs special limits on church services

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday rejected an emergency appeal from a church in California challenging Gov. Gavin Newsom’s limits on in-person services due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts once again joined the high court’s liberals in turning down a request by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, Calif., near San Diego, which argued that the order limiting in-person attendance at services was a violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion guarantee.

The church said in its court filing that 200-300 worshippers normally attend in-person services. Church officials had hoped to get Newsom’s restrictions struck down in time for services on Sunday.

In a brief opinion, Roberts claimed that Newsom’s order allowing churches to reopen with only 25 percent capacity and no more than 100 worshippers at a time, “appear consistent” with the First Amendment.

The chief justice added that more extensive limitations apply to movie theaters, sporting events, and concerts “where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

However, in a dissent, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that the California restriction “discriminates against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses.

“Such discrimination violates the First Amendment,” he noted, pointing to places like supermarkets, hair salons, restaurants, cannabis dispensaries and additional businesses that currently aren’t subject to similar restrictions.

Previously, lower courts in California had rejected the church’s requests.

Last week, Newsom issued new guidelines that required churches to reopen under the following conditions:

— 25 percent capacity/100-person limit

— Must observe social distancing (6 feet)

— Worshippers must wear masks

— New cleaning protocols must be followed

— Singing and group recitations must be limited

The guidelines state that “upon 21 days, the California Department of Public Health will review the impact of these imposed limits on public health and provide further direction.”

Newsom’s partial lifting of his complete ban on in-person church services came after President Donald Trump declared houses of worship as “essential” during the now-waning pandemic.

“Today I am identifying houses of worship, churches, synagogues and mosques as essential places that provide essential services,” the president said last week, as he chastised Democrat governors for keeping churches closed while allowing people to patronize some businesses including liquor stores.

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but it left out churches and houses of worship. It’s not right. So I am correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential,” the president said.

“I call upon governors to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now,” he added. “If there’s any question, they’re going to have to call me but they’re not going to be successful in that call.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot rebuked the president and defied his call to reopen churches, calling it “dangerous and foolish.”

“[Trump] has said so many dangerous and foolish things,” Lightfoot told reporters last week. “Add this to the list.”

Lightfoot claimed that religious leaders in Chicago backed her decision to prevent in-person services ostensibly to ‘bend’ the coronavirus curve, but religious leaders on Chicago’s South Side praised Trump while urging Lightfoot and Democratic Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to end the politicization of religious services.

As for California, Newsom was warned earlier this month by the Justice Department not to discriminate against churches, suggesting the department could take legal action against him if he was found to be violating the law or the Constitution.

“California has not shown why interactions in offices and studios of the entertainment industry, and in-person operations to facilitate nonessential e-commerce, are included on the list as being allowed with social distancing where telework is not practical, while gatherings with social distancing for purposes of religious worship are forbidden,” said a letter sent by Assistant Attorney General Eric Drieband to the governor.

“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” Drieband wrote.

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, however, it isn’t clear what kind of case the DOJ could make.

Jon Dougherty

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