You can bang your head against the wall of the First Amendment as much as you want, even in the name of COVID-19. No matter how many masks you’re wearing, you won’t make it through.
This is what the state of California has apparently learned the hard way. After their latest setback at the Supreme Court, state leaders have lifted the limits on indoor worship that have been in place for most of the coronavirus crisis.
On Monday, California issued guidance that kept its restrictive policies on religious services as strong recommendations but said they wouldn’t be enforced due to legal complications.
“In response to recent judicial rulings, effective immediately, location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory but are strongly recommended,” read a one-paragraph explanation on the website of the state’s Department of Public Health. “The linked guidance is in the process of being updated. All other restrictions in the guidance remain in place.”
According to The Associated Press, the move comes after the latest loss in a string of lawsuits. California had initially placed an all-encompassing ban on indoor services in response to an uptick in COVID cases, but that was struck down by the Supreme Court in February.
In one of the majority opinions, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that “we appear to have a State playing favorites during a pandemic.” He added that California “obviously targets religion for differential treatment.”
However, in that 6-3 ruling, the court left a 25 percent capacity limit and a ban on singing and chanting indoors intact.
The state’s churches were fully opened up, however, after the Supreme Court struck down California’s ban on in-home religious meetings last week, finding that the policies conflicted with the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.
“First, government regulations are not neutral and generally applicable, and therefore trigger strict scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause, whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise,” read the decision in the case, Tandon v. Newsom.
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The court went on to say that “the government has the burden to establish that the challenged law satisfies strict scrutiny. To do so in this context, it must do more than assert that certain risk factors ‘are always present in worship, or always absent from the other secular activities’ the government may allow.”
Instead, the justices said, “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 to bring together more than three households at a time.”
As the Center for American Liberty noted, this is no less than the fifth case the state of California has lost in the Newsom administration’s quixotic fight against worshipping any deity under a roof: Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom, South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, Gish v. Newsom, Gateway City Church v. Newsom and Tandon v. Newsom.
And to think: If only these churches had gotten themselves a Michelin star and called themselves the French Laundry, they wouldn’t have had any of this trouble. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom might have even shown up for worship services in that case. Know of any molecular gastronomy dishes that involve communion wafers and red wine?
However, Friday’s ruling dealt with in-home religious meetings, which usually encompass prayer groups and Bible studies. According to The Daily Wire, in the aftermath of the ruling, attorney Paul Jonna of the Thomas More Society — a Catholic law firm that represented clients in some of the cases — sent acting California Attorney General Matthew Rodriquez an email asking about what the state planned to do regarding capacity and location limits for religious services.
“Please confirm before our 1 pm call on Monday whether/when the State plans to update its guidance to set churches at 100% capacity. Otherwise, we will seek further appellate relief — which will inevitably result in the 6th rebuke from SCOTUS of the unfortunate strategy chosen by your clients,” Jonna’s email read.
“It’s time for the State of CA to get the message from the Supreme Court and stop fighting to maintain unconstitutional restrictions on religious exercise. Your clients’ obstinate refusal to follow the law will only result in a larger attorneys’ fees award at the end of this case.”
With no shortage of tears falling on Democrat laptops in Sacramento, one imagines, the restrictions were quietly made “recommendations.” It’s unclear whether the Thomas More Society’s intervention had anything to do with it; it’s probably more accurate to say reality intervened.
The Center for American Liberty, which was behind three of the five lawsuits, welcomed the win for religious freedom.
“Governor Newsom should have done this a long time ago,” the center’s founder and CEO, Harmeet K. Dhillon, told The Daily Wire.
“For over a year, the state of California has targeted the faith community for discriminatory treatment depriving them of their fundamental right to worship. It shouldn’t take a decision from the Supreme Court, much less five decisions, for Gov. Newsom to realize that what he has been doing is unconstitutional.
“Today’s decision is incredibly gratifying for my colleagues and [me] at the Center for American Liberty who have been zealously advocating on behalf of courageous Californians seeking the full restoration of the First Amendment.”
“While we celebrate the lifting of restrictions today, our work is not done. We will not relent until we have sufficient precedent from the courts prohibiting this civil liberties crisis from ever happening again.”
So, will other states with restrictive regulations on in-person gatherings lift them now? In New York, for instance, the state still requires houses of worship to operate at no more than 50 percent occupancy, despite several court setbacks.
One hopes this starts a trend that reaches, to use Woody Guthrie’s words, from California to the New York island.
After all, if one of the bluest of the blue states can finally stop hitting its head against the Constitution, so can another.
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