The Supreme Court of United States rejected the plea to remove restrictions on religious places. South Bay Pentecostal Church moved an application of injunction against the Covid-19 restrictions. The decision was a result of a close divide of 5:4 among the judges.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, California has imposed restrictions on the number of attendance in religious places. The restriction is 25% of the building capacity or 100 people, whichever is lower. This 25% cap has not been sanctioned on any other businesses like hotels, salons, supermarkets, etc.
The churches are placed under the category of large gatherings. South Bay church applied for an injunction against this restriction order. The lower courts in California have turned down the churches pleas. Several other churches from Chicago and Illinois applied for injunction but were rejected.
The free exercise clause of the First Amendment protects the religious practices from government regulations. But the extreme situation which has put public health on line has had the government to take strict actions. The church has 20-30 people gathering and would qualify under large gatherings.
There are similar or severe restrictions placed on other secular gatherings such as concerts, theaters, lectures, etc. This is for gatherings in large groups in close proximity for extended period of time. The Court observed that the present restrictions by the California State are well within the bounds of the free exercise clause. The Court cited Marshall v United States which supports the broad reach by government to problems with medical uncertainty. With the COVID-19 cases on a constant rise, restrictions aiming social distancing are essential. The Court pointed to the compelling interests of public health that the state has for these restrictions.
The dissent made an interesting point by comparing the church to other secular businesses. The main argument was to allow the church to run without restrictions same as other businesses. The judges asserted that allowing businesses to work free while posting restrictions on the church would not serve right. The church will adhere to all the norms and hygienic practices like the other businesses. Judge Kavanaugh added that the restrictions would burden the religious freedom. The other dissenting judges expressed that this is violation of the First Amendment. These restrictions are mere discrimination against religious activities.
The Court held that the decision on lifting of restrictions is in fact intensive. The Constitution entrusts the duty to protect the health of the people on the state. The state must take all necessary actions in its constitutional power to reach this goal. The Court finally rejected the application of injunction.
This revealed the importance of balance between religious liberty and the public health. The thin line in balancing these has never been more important. All businesses, stores and churches will have to take all precautions. The dissenting Judges questioned, assuming all precautions are taken, how someone can walk safely down a grocery store aisle but not a pew. This question will be answered only when the restrictions lead to flattening of the curve.
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