The ruling issued just before 11 p.m. ET Friday produced four separate statements by the justices.
A splintered U.S. Supreme Court blocked California from enforcing coronavirus-related bans on indoor worship services, but declined to upset other state rules banning singing and chanting and limiting the number of worshipers.
The ruling issued just before 11 p.m. ET Friday produced four separate statements by the justices, as well as a convoluted description of what relief various justices would have granted to churches objecting to the limits.
However, a majority of the court was only willing to lift the ban California has applied on all indoor worship in Tier 1 counties — those most challenged by Covid-19. The other restrictions remain undisturbed, for now.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Friday night ruling: new Justice Amy Coney Barrett, whose conservative Catholic views drew suspicion from many liberals in advance of her confirmation last year, declined to grant the churches the most sweeping relief favored by her most conservative colleagues.
Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas would have granted all the churches’ requests, lifting the singing and chanting bans and barred California from enforcing a 25 percent capacity limit that applies to many indoor facilities. Justice Samuel Alito would have had such a ban kick in 30 days from now if the state didn’t make certain showings in court.
“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,” Gorsuch wrote.
Barrett opted for a middle-ground position with Justice Brett Kavanaugh that did not go as far as Gorsuch, Thomas or Alito.
“The applicants bore the burden of establishing their entitlement to relief from the singing ban. In my view, they did not carry that burden—at least not on this record,” she wrote in a brief opinion.
The court’s three liberals dissented from the decision, arguing that the court was unwise to substitute its judgment for that of state officials amid the ongoing pandemic.
“Under the Court’s injunction, the State must instead treat worship services like secular activities that pose a much lesser danger. That mandate defies our caselaw, exceeds our judicial role, and risks worsening the pandemic,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. “In the worst public health crisis in a century, this foray into armchair epidemiology cannot end well.”
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