A California church was handed a win on Thursday when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a lower federal court to revisit an earlier ruling against the congregation, which is challenging Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on indoor services.
Attorneys for the Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministries, which is located in Pasadena, originally argued Newsom’s religious restrictions violated the First Amendment.
In September, they sued Newsom in federal court.
A federal trial court in the Central District of California upheld Newsom’s restrictions on indoor religious gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.
An appeal by attorneys for Harvest Rock was also unsuccessful in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
They appealed to the Supreme Court.
“For [Newsom], COVID-19 restrictions are apparently optional and penalty free. But for Churches or anyone worshipping in their own home with someone who does not live there, COVID-19 restrictions are mandatory and enforced via criminal penalties,” attorneys for the Harvest Rock Church wrote in a request to the Supreme Court, CBS News reported.
It appears the Supreme Court is prepared to act to protect religious liberty in the Golden State, although that might take some more time.
Fox News reported that on Thursday, the high court vacated the lower court ruling.
The Supreme Court ordered the federal appeals court to take another look at the case, particularly in light of last week’s decision against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restricting of religious gatherings.
#SCOTUS sends case of southern California church challenging governor’s COVID-19 restrictions back to district court for another look after last week’s decision in favor of NY churches & synagogues. The court’s order is here: https://t.co/WbxPAlXqtr
— Amy Howe (@AHoweBlogger) December 3, 2020
“The September 2 order of the United States District Court for the Central District of California is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit with instructions to remand to the District Court for further consideration in light of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo,” the Supreme Court said, according to Fox.
Regarding the Harvest Rock Church case, the court reminded elected officials that public health emergencies do not supersede the powers afforded to individuals and religious institutions by the Constitution, as was found in the ruling earlier this month in New York.
Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s liberal wing in a dissent against an injunction against New York’s restrictions on places of worship.
But the court’s conservative majority, with three justice appointed by President Donald Trump, found that Cuomo could not target religious institutions while simultaneously allowing secular activities to go on unbothered by public health mandates.
Cases against New York by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and the Agudath Israel of America Jewish coalition were combined by the high court.
The court had harsh words for New York’s leaders.
“Government is not free to disregard the First Amendment in a crisis,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the ruling.
“At a minimum, that Amendment prohibits government officials from treating religious exercises worse than comparable secular activities, unless they are pursuing a compelling interest and using the least restrictive means available,” Gorsuch added.
In upholding religious liberty amid the pandemic, the court set a precedent in the New York case, which is important, even as the case in California goes back to the lower court for a second look.
Should the Harvest Rock Church case make its way back to the Supreme Court, it is likely the court would rule in favor of preserving religious liberty for Californias.
Indoor religious services in California are currently prohibited in “high-risk areas” (which cover most of the state) and limited to 25 percent capacity in “moderate-risk counties.”
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