On Friday, a divided Supreme Court granted an injunction to applicants challenging California’s COVID-19 restrictions on in-home religious gatherings, political activities, and business operations, consequently putting those restrictions on hold. This judgment effectively reversed the Ninth Circuit’s March 30 denial of an emergency request for relief to the same 10 individuals.
In a per curiam opinion followed by a three-justice dissent — and a note that Chief Justice John Roberts would deny the aplication — the majority called the Ninth Circuit’s denial of emergency relief “erroneous,” backing the applicants’ arguments that the state’s restrictions violated their free exercise of religion, speech, and assembly, as well as due process and equal protection rights.
The majority said that recent decisions adjudicating on COVID-19 restrictions vis-à-vis religious gatherings by the court already have cleared up the discrepancies between the Justices’ reasoning and the Ninth Circuit’s, which found that certain capacity limitations held religious organizations to a stricter standard than secular organizations.
The court found, noting four of its prior reversals from the Ninth Circuit involving COVID-19 limitations, that the state of California “treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise, permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants to bring together more than three households at a time.” Additionally the court noted that the circuit decision “did not conclude that those activities pose a lesser risk of transmission than applicants’ proposed religious exercise at home.”
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, arguing that the challenged order brought a “blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike” and contending that the majority “continues to disregard law and facts” through attempts at loosening pandemic restrictions via adjudication.
“California need not, as the per curiam insists, treat at-home religious gatherings the same as hardware stores and hair salons—and thus unlike at-home secular gatherings, the obvious comparator here,” Kagan wrote. “As the per curiam’s reliance on separate opinions and unreasoned orders signals, the law does not require that the State equally treat apples and watermelons.”
The injunction applicants are represented by Eimer Stahl LLP, and the state of California is represented by its own counsel.