The U.S. Supreme Court handed churches and the faith community another major victory Friday, ruling that California's restrictions on at-home Bible studies during the pandemic likely violate the U.S. Constitution and cannot be enforced.
The court, by a 5-4 vote, issued an injunction against California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his administration, blocking the enforcement of restrictions that limit at-home gatherings to three families.
The Center for American Liberty and Eimer Stahl LLP had challenged the restrictions on behalf of a pastor and other families, arguing that the state's rules violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments. They lost at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals before appealing to the Supreme Court.
In a four-page order Friday, the Supreme Court said the plaintiffs "likely" will succeed in their free exercise of religion claim.
The state's restrictions, the court said, are not neutral.
"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 order said.
The high court also criticized the Ninth Circuit's decision.
"Instead of requiring the State to explain why it could not safely permit at-home worshipers to gather in larger numbers while using precautions used in secular activities, the Ninth Circuit erroneously declared that such measures might not 'translate readily' to the home," the order said. "The State cannot 'assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work."
Although the restrictions were set to expire, the Supreme Court said it was necessary to issue the ruling due to California officials who have a "track record" of "moving the goalposts."
The majority consisted of Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett.
The Center for American Liberty applauded the court's decision, calling it a "victory" for freedom.
"Here, in the case of a rule banning different families from gathering in a private home to pray together, the court recognized that any time the government burdens religious activity with special rules, it must bear the burden of strict scrutiny, and in this case, it could not meet that test," said Harmeet K. Dhillon, CEO of the Center for American Liberty. "We are grateful that the First Amendment rights of our clients were recognized by the court in overturning the 9th Circuit."
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Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.