On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court took a stand, 6-3, for the freedom to worship over an onerous coronavirus-related order. The Court ordered the State of California to end its blanket ban on all indoor religious services as discriminatory. California was the only state to ban all indoor religious services. But the court did allow the state to limit indoor worship services to 25 percent of capacity, and left in place a ban on singing and chanting.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, though in the majority, issued an opinion declaring that he would have preferred a stronger ruling to protect the freedom to worship under the First Amendment. Some excerpts:
Since the arrival of COVID–19, California has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses. The State’s spreadsheet summarizing its pandemic rules even assigns places of worship their own row …
When a State so obviously targets religion for differential treatment, our job becomes that much clearer …
The State presumes that worship inherently involves a large number of people. Never mind that scores might pack into train stations or wait in long checkout lines in the businesses the State allows to remain open. Never mind, too, that some worshippers may seek only to pray in solitude, go to confession, or study in small groups …
California has sensibly expressed concern that singing may be a particularly potent way to transmit the disease, and it has banned singing not just at indoor worship services, but at indoor private gatherings, schools, and restaurants too…
Even if a full congregation singing hymns is too risky, California does not explain why even a single masked cantor cannot lead worship behind a mask and a plexiglass shield. Or why even a lone muezzin may not sing the call to prayer from a remote location inside a mosque as worshippers file in.
In her first signed opinion in a religious-liberty case, Justice Amy Coney Barrett chimed in: “Of course, if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral.”
Underlying these opinions is a sense that Sacramento has a fine appreciation for the First Amendment rights of business – especially the movie business – but not for the thousands of churches, synagogues, mosques and temples in California communities.