US Supreme Court Rules Against California's Lockdown of Churches...Kind Of

P. Gardner Goldsmith | March 1, 2021
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By a vote of six to three, the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States on Friday, Feb 26 issued an order for injunctive relief against Santa Clara County, California, in its enforcement of a church lockdown based on Governor Gavin Newsom’s Executive Order for the state, the court thus reaffirming the right to worship that is supposedly enshrined in the First Amendment and the California Constitution.

Except, they only reaffirmed it at 20 percent capacity. 

If you think that sounds like the SCOTUS has improperly allowed a 20 percent cap on the right to worship -- something that is called a "right" because it’s innate for all humans and not supposed to be touched by agents of the state, but that they then denied based on "a numerical cap," you’re absolutely right.

The case was called Gateway City Church et al v. Newsom, but included four other California churches in the request for injunctive relief to stop Santa Clara County’s most recent switch to a complete lockdown – a lockdown that officials from the county claimed is supposed to end next week, but which the plaintiffs argued was a manifestation of an unconstitutional treatment of the right to worship.

As Greg Stohr reports for Bloomberg:

The U.S. Supreme Court said a California county must let five churches hold indoor services, adding to a line of orders that have curbed the power of government officials as they battle the spread of the coronavirus.

And the members of the majority offered their order for injunctive relief based on the earlier SCOTUS ruling February 6 in the case of South Bay Pentecostal Church v Newsom, a ruling that allowed for a 25 percent occupancy limit, but not a zeroing, or complete closure.

See? It totally makes sense.

Even though the right to worship is inherent, and, as a right, it’s supposed to be impervious to government attack – even though the California Constitution explicitly states:

SEC. 4. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be guaranteed in this State…

The SCOTUS ruled on Feb 6th that for 75 percent of folks who want to attend services in any house of worship, the right is dead and, evidently, not protected by that state constitution.

Related: COVID-Obsessed Government Shuts Down California Chapel's Plans to Reopen

Stohr notes that this most recent case saw multiple churches join to fight a strange new county edict that “allowed” 20 percent capacity for non-worship at the houses of worship, but zero people for worship:

Five suing churches said the county can’t constitutionally let churches operate at 20% capacity but then bar those people from worshiping together (at ZERO).

And, though the court found in favor of the plaintiffs, this new order for injunctive relief, this “victory” handed out by the state in favor of the right of worship, uses the South Bay Pentecostal decision as its basis, saying, essentially, that a zero capacity limit is unacceptable, but allowing 75 percent to be shut out -- or, in the new case, 80 percent, is acceptable.

Which, again, is peculiar, given the meaning of the word RIGHT, and the California Constitution, noted above.

Some might argue that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution also would prohibit the county or state of California from infringing on the right to worship, but the First Amendment specifies only Congress in its prohibition against establishing a religion or infringing on the right of free religious exercise.

Of course, that wasn’t a nuance the majority of the court addressed, and neither did they address the fundamental point of the California Constitution. Their order was a paragraph, and then they cleaned their hands of the matter.

The three most liberal Justices -- Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor – dissented (likely because they thought a total lockdown was fine), leaving Roberts, Kavanaugh, Thomas, Alito, Barrett, and Gorsuch in the majority.

Sure is nice to know nine people can decide the fate of your rights, even to the point of allowing those rights to have a “capacity limit” attached to them by government. If you’re in that 25 percent who can exercise religion without fear of government attack, feel fortunate. If you’re not, well, sorry.

No more rights for you.