Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Friday night’s ruling: the new judiciary Amy Coney Barrett, whose conservative Catholic views were suspected by many liberals before being confirmed last year, declined to give churches the fullest relief preferred by their most conservative peers has been.
Judges Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas granted all the churches’ motions, lifted the bans on singing, and prevented California from enforcing a 25 percent capacity limit that applies to many interiors. Justice Samuel Alito would have had such a ban kick in 30 days if the state had not made certain allegations in court.
“Even if an entire congregation singing hymns is too risky, California does not explain why even a single masked cantor cannot lead the worship behind a mask and a plexiglass shield. Or why even a lonely muezzin calls to prayer from a distant place cannot sing in a mosque while worshipers arrive, “wrote Gorsuch.
Barrett chose a middle position with Justice Brett Kavanaugh that did not extend to Gorsuch, Thomas or Alito.
“It was the burden of the applicants to assert their right to be exempted from the singing ban. In my opinion, they did not bear that burden – at least not in this file,” she wrote in a brief statement.
The court’s three liberals disagreed with the decision, arguing that the court would be unwise to replace the state official’s verdict with his verdict in the ongoing pandemic.
“Under the injunction of the court, the state must instead treat worship services as secular activities that pose a much lesser threat. This mandate is contrary to our jurisdiction, surpasses our judicial role, and risks worsening the pandemic,” wrote Judge Elena Kagan in a dissenting judge Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. “In the worst public health crisis in a century, this foray into chair epidemiology cannot end well.”
Kagan also suggested that given the California climate, banning indoor worship would be less burdensome there than anywhere else. “Given California’s mild climate, this restriction, which the Court is now lifting only for places of worship, is not a ban on activity,” she wrote.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who held a swing vote last year that resulted in rulings denying churches’ requests for exemption from virus-related borders, said he still believes in respect for elected officials. But he said on Friday that the ban in large parts of California is contrary to logic.
“The state’s current determination – that the maximum number of devotees who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero – does not seem to reflect expertise or discretion, but an insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake,” wrote Roberts . “Reverence is broad, but it has its limits.”
The main court ruling on Friday came in a case cited by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church near San Diego. The court also issued a similar order in a parallel case held by Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, California.