Supreme Court halts California pandemic restrictions on at-home worship

“California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise,” the majority opinion said.


A tightly divided Supreme Court ruled late Friday to prevent California from enforcing restrictions on in-person religious meetings in homes, including prayer groups and Bible studies.

The 5-4 ruling with conservatives in the majority was the latest in a series of Supreme Court decisions to block state governments from imposing some coronavirus pandemic-related restrictions on religious events. California had limited indoor gatherings to three households or fewer, with different rules for other places.

“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,” the unsigned opinion said.

The opinion hit the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, saying the court failed to require California to say why it couldn’t safely allow in-home worshipers to be in larger groups by taking precautions used for non-religious activities.

“The State cannot assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work,'” the majority opinion said. “This is the fifth time the Court has summarily rejected the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of California’s COVID restrictions on religious exercise.”

The court’s three liberal justices and Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed with the majority. The dissenting opinion argued California’s three household limit was applied equally to “all kinds” of at-home gatherings.

“California need not … treat at-home religious gatherings the same as hardware stores and hair salons,” the dissenting opinion said. “The law does not require that the State equally treat apples and watermelons.”

In February, the nation’s highest court blocked California from pandemic bans on indoor religious services, but didn’t touch rules barring singing and chanting as well as restricting the number of people gathering. In November, the court also barred New York from reinstating limits on religious events.