Houston Chronicle Sunday

California ordered to lift rules on home worship

- By Jessica Gresko

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is telling California that it can’t enforce coronaviru­s-related restrictio­ns that have limited homebased religious worship including Bible studies and prayer meetings.

The order from the court late Friday is the latest in a recent string of cases in which the high court has barred officials from enforcing some coronaviru­s-related restrictio­ns applying to religious gatherings.

Five conservati­ve justices agreed that California restrictio­ns that apply to in-home religious gatherings should be lifted for now, while the court’s three liberals and Chief Justice John Roberts would not have done so.

California has already, however, announced significan­t changes loosening restrictio­ns on gatherings that go into effect April 15. The changes come after infection rates have gone down in the state.

The case before the justices involved California rules that in most of the state limit indoor social gatherings to no more than three households. Attendees are required to wear masks and physically distance from one another. Different restrictio­ns apply to places including schools, grocery stores and churches.

“California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise,” allowing hair salons, retail stores, and movie theaters, among other places, “to bring together more than three households at a time,” the unsigned order from the court said. A lower court “did not conclude that those activities pose a lesser risk of transmissi­on than applicants’ proposed religious exercise at home,” it said.

The court acknowledg­ed that California’s policy on gatherings will change next week but said the restrictio­ns remain in place until then and that “officials with a track record of ‘moving the goalposts’ retain authority to reinstate those heightened restrictio­ns at any time.”

Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent for herself and her liberal colleagues, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, that the court’s majority was hurting state officials’ ability to address a public health emergency.

“California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households. 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. California need not … treat at-home religious gatherings the same as hardware stores and hair salons,” she wrote.

The case before the justices involved two residents of Santa Clara County in the San Francisco Bay Area, who want to host small, inperson Bible study sessions in their homes. In an email message Saturday, one of their lawyers, Ryan J. Walsh, said he and his colleagues were “thrilled beyond words” for their clients.

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