In a Friday night ruling, the Supreme Court voted along ideological lines and ruled that California Governor Gavin Newsom can’t entirely ban indoor church services due to the pandemic. But they didn’t go so far as to say that churches are “untouchable” and can’t be restricted in any fashion. Unsurprisingly, the court’s three remaining liberal justices dissented and would have been willing to allow Newsom to forbid indoor church services entirely. This is a decision that will likely impact a number of other pending cases in multiple states. It was a case of the First Amendment being pitted against the extraordinary authoritarian powers granted to executive officials during a declared state of emergency. (Associated Press)

The Supreme Court is telling California it can’t enforce a ban on indoor church services because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The high court issued orders late Friday in two cases where churches had sued over coronavirus-related restrictions in the state. The high court said that for now, California can’t ban indoor worship in areas where virus cases are surging, but it can cap indoor services at 25% of a building’s capacity. The justices also declined to stop the state from barring singing and chanting at services.

The court’s three liberal justices dissented.

This is the second time that SCOTUS has ruled in favor of religious freedom during pandemic lockdowns. In September, they delivered a similar ruling in a case out of New York State, though that one was a bit closer, with Chief Justice John Robers siding with the liberals in a 5-4 split.

As I mentioned above, the court didn’t totally throw out all of Newsom’s orders. The Justices refused to shoot down the state’s ability to limit attendance to 25% of capacity. They also allowed a ban on singing in church to stand.

As to caps on attendance, I suppose that makes sense to some degree. It’s crazy to think that you can allow a grocery store or Walmart to be open with limited capacity but not offer the churches the same option. That comparison becomes even wilder when you consider that there is no Constitutional right assigned to Walmart shoppers. We could probably extend this interpretation a bit and ask whether there ever should have been any governmental power to define which activities qualify as “essential businesses” and which were “nonessential.” Every public center of activity of any kind only exists because there is a demand for it. Stores that attract no shoppers and churches without a congregation don’t tend to last very long.

The ban on singing is another issue entirely. I don’t see how the court was “following the science” on that call at all. They’re saying that the Governor has the right to ban singing, but talking is just fine? There’s always going to be someone standing before the congregation and preaching. We’ve already determined that the virus can be transmitted through the air as a result of people opening their mouths, whether they are coughing, sneezing or speaking. What’s the difference when they are singing? What if the Priest is leading the congregation is a recitation of one of the Psalms? As long as they’re not doing it in a musical fashion they aren’t technically “singing,” right? Would that be allowed?

There are plenty of these challenges making their way through the courts this year. I think the conservative majority on the nation’s highest court is sending a fairly clear message so far. Some limitations on personal freedoms may be put in place during a declared state of emergency, but those executive powers are not limitless. And they don’t override the fundamental rights assured to citizens in the Constitution.