In South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, the Supreme Court of the United States weighed in on California’s restrictions on indoor church services, striking down the outright prohibition, but allowing California to impose operational limits, including capacity limits and restrictions on singing and chanting.
A divided US Supreme Court partially lifted Governor Newsom’s ban on indoor church services, citing First Amendment concerns. A church challenged California’s three-pronged restrictions, established in August 2020, for houses of worship that include: (1) prohibition on indoor worship, (2) 25% capacity limitation on indoor worship, and (3) prohibition on singing and chanting during indoor services.
The State’s rationale for imposing the restrictions was that indoor worship involves large numbers of multi-household groups congregating in close physical proximity for extended periods of time with singing or chanting, all of which increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
The church’s application for injunctive relief was granted in part; the Court lifted the restriction prohibiting indoor worship, but denied the application with respect to the capacity limits and prohibition on singing and chanting. The Court added, however, that the denial was without prejudice, and that it may reconsider its conclusion if the church could provide evidence that the State wasn’t applying the capacity limits and prohibitions on singing and chanting evenly across the board.
The splintered majority reasoned that, although public health and safety questions are entrusted to politically accountable officials, it is the Court’s job to protect the people’s constitutional rights. The majority questioned whether the restrictions were reasonably tailored to meet the desired goal of reducing COVID-19 infections. The majority further pointed to potentially uneven application of restrictions, questioning whether individuals in the entertainment industry would be allowed to sing without similar restrictions and questioning why the State would allow retail operations to proceed at reduced capacity.
Justice Kagan, Justice Breyer, and Justice Sotomayor dissented, noting that the Court is not equipped to answer questions of medicine, science, or public health policy. Relying on medical expert testimony, the dissent further noted that church operations are distinguishable from entertainment industry operations and retail operations. As to the former, the State provided evidence that entertainment industry operations involve the testing of employees up to three times a week. As to the latter, the State provided evidence that retail operations carry less risk because they involve closer proximities for shorter periods of time than indoor worship.
State and local regulations must ensure that governmental efforts to bring down COVID-19 infection rates do not contravene constituents’ constitutional rights. Striking that balance may prove difficult in light of new findings regarding efficacy of prevention efforts and increased demands for a return to normalcy.
If you have any questions about State or local COVID-19 restrictions, do not hesitate to contact your OMLO attorney.