The Supreme Court on Friday once again sided with houses of worship challenging regulations aimed at stopping the spread of Covid-19 in California.
The court blocked so-called gathering restrictions in Santa Clara County that critics said treated churches differently than secular businesses in violation of the First Amendment.
The issue has bitterly divided the court and the three liberal justices — Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor — noted their dissent in an order issued after hours on Friday.
The court acted despite the fact that the restrictions are scheduled to be lifted next week.
The dispute was brought by several churches in Santa Clara County that objected to a ban on all indoor gatherings, including political events, weddings, funerals, movie showings and worship services.
Although the Supreme Court earlier this month struck down state regulations that banned indoor worship services, the state allows counties to pass their own more strict rules.
In court papers, lawyers for the Santa Clara County churches said the county “did just that.”
“The Santa Clara Director of Public Health forced worshipers outdoors in the heat and smoke of the summer and the cold and rain of autumn and winter,” Kevin T. Snider, a lawyer for the churches, argued in court papers.
“Article III courts have a duty to jealously and zealously protect the peoples’ rights from the other two branches of government and the States in times like these,” he said, calling the county “an island of tyranny.”
Santa Clara County allows houses of worship to meet at 20% capacity for any purpose except worship services. Other businesses including grocery and retail stores, as well as hair salons and tattoo and body art salons, are allowed to operate at 20% capacity.
A lower court upheld the restrictions, holding that they were neutral regulations that apply to all.
In court papers, lawyers for the county distinguished their dispute from the recent Supreme Court case, South Bay v. Gavin Newsom, which concerned state wide regulations. They said that their restrictions are “fundamentally different” from others the justices have already considered because they “do not impose special restrictions on religious institutions.”
“Instead,” James R. Williams, of the office of the County Counsel, argued “they prohibit all indoor gatherings of all kinds at all places.” Williams stressed that the places of worship are not closed. They are open so that individuals can pray, go to confession and seek spiritual guidance.
“Critically, retail stores and other secular establishments are subject to precisely the same rules,” he said, noting that shoppers may purchase items indoors but they can’t attend an indoor gathering such as a book reading.
In its brief Friday order, the Supreme Court disagreed, although it did not provide its reasoning. The court said that the outcome in the case “is clearly dictated” by its decision in South Bay.