U.S. Supreme Court kicks California church’s case on coronavirus rules back to lower court

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, Dec. 3, kicked back to a lower court the question of whether a Pasadena-based church’s case can block California’s restrictions on worship services in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
The brief order instructs a U.S. District Court to re-consider a previous ruling against Harvest Rock Church in light of a similar case in New York where the Supreme Court barred restrictions on religious services in that state.
The Liberty Counsel, which is representing the Pasadena church in the legal battle, described the Supreme Court ruling as a “great relief for churches and places of worship. …
“The handwriting is now on the wall,” Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver said in a statement. “The final days of Governor Gavin Newsom’s ‘color-coded edicts’ banning worship are numbered and coming to an end. It is past time to end the unconstitutional restrictions on places of worship.”
Harvest Rock – with locations in Pasadena, Santa Ana, Corona and downtown Los Angeles – filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Court early last week asking for an injunction that would block state-imposed coronavirus restrictions that church attorneys described as “draconian and unconscionable.”
The emergency request raised the general question of whether state leaders can restrict the size of religious gatherings while giving what the church’s attorneys allege was “preferential treatment” to “comparable” nonreligious gatherings.
The California State Attorney General’s Office earlier this week filed a response arguing that the restrictions are needed to limit surging coronavirus-case rates and hospitalizations and are proportional to the risk posed by specific indoor worship activities such as singing and chanting.
The state response also said that similar activities that entail large numbers of people in close proximity for long periods of time face restrictions comparable to religious services, such as the public attending lectures, movie theaters, live concerts and sporting events.
The Supreme Court ruling represents a partial victory for faith-based groups fighting against limits on religious gatherings, though it does not immediately impact the existing state restrictions.
Indoor religious services in California have been largely curtailed as most of the state has fallen into the strictest tier of coronavirus restrictions.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in a New York case did not have an immediate impact on local restrictions in California. However, a court victory for Harvest Rock would likely impact religious gatherings across California.
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