In today’s South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, the Court denied an application for injunction relief. Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan voted to deny; Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh voted to grant.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote a concurrence, and Justice Kavanaugh (joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch) wrote a dissent. The heart of their disagreement had to do with whether the entities not covered by the cap were sufficiently different from churches; Chief Justice Roberts said yes:
[T]he Order exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks, and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.
Justice Kavanaugh said no:
The basic constitutional problem is that comparable secular businesses are not subject to a 25% occupancy cap, including factories, offices, supermarkets, restaurants, retail stores, pharmacies, shopping malls, pet grooming shops, bookstores, florists, hair salons, and cannabis dispensaries.
Here is Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion:
The Governor of California’s Executive Order aims to limit the spread of COVID-19, a novel severe acute respiratory illness that has killed thousands of people in California and more than 100,000 nationwide. At this time, there is no known cure, no effective treatment, and no vaccine. Because people may be infected but asymptomatic, they may unwittingly infect others. The Order places temporary numerical restrictions on public gatherings to address this extraordinary health emergency. State guidelines currently limit attendance at places of worship to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees.
Applicants seek to enjoin enforcement of the Order. “Such a request demands a significantly higher justification than a request for a stay because, unlike a stay, an injunction does not simply suspend judicial alteration of the status quo but grants judicial intervention that has been withheld by lower courts.” This power is used where “the legal rights at issue are indisputably clear” and, even then, “sparingly and only in the most critical and exigent circumstances.”
Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time. And the Order exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks, and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.
The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement. Our Constitution principally entrusts “[t]he safety and the health of the people” to the politically accountable officials of the States “to guard and protect.” Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905).
When those officials “undertake to act in areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties,” their latitude “must be especially broad.” Where those broad limits are not exceeded, they should not be subject to second-guessing by an “unelected federal judiciary,” which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people.
That is especially true where, as here, a party seeks emergency relief in an interlocutory posture, while local officials are actively shaping their response to changing facts on the ground. The notion that it is “indisputably clear” that the Government’s limitations are unconstitutional seems quite improbable.
And here’s Justice Kavanaugh’s:
I would grant the Church’s requested temporary injunction because California’s latest safety guidelines discriminate against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses. Such discrimination violates the First Amendment.
In response to the COVID-19 health crisis, California has now limited attendance at religious worship services to 25% of building capacity or 100 attendees, whichever is lower. The basic constitutional problem is that comparable secular businesses are not subject to a 25% occupancy cap, including factories, offices, supermarkets, restaurants, retail stores, pharmacies, shopping malls, pet grooming shops, bookstores, florists, hair salons, and cannabis dispensaries. South Bay United Pentecostal Church has applied for temporary injunctive relief from California’s 25% occupancy cap on religious worship services.
Importantly, the Church is willing to abide by the State’s rules that apply to comparable secular businesses, including the rules regarding social distancing and hygiene. But the Church objects to a 25% occupancy cap that is imposed on religious worship services but not imposed on those comparable secular businesses.
In my view, California’s discrimination against religious worship services contravenes the Constitution. As a general matter, the “government may not use religion as a basis of classification for the imposition of duties, penalties, privileges or benefits.” This Court has stated that discrimination against religion is “odious to our Constitution.”
To justify its discriminatory treatment of religious worship services, California must show that its rules are “justified by a compelling governmental interest” and “narrowly tailored to advance that interest.” California undoubtedly has a compelling interest in combating the spread of COVID-19 and protecting the health of its citizens. But “restrictions inexplicably applied to one group and exempted from another do little to further these goals and do much to burden religious freedom.” What California needs is a compelling justification for distinguishing between (i) religious worship services and (ii) the litany of other secular businesses that are not subject to an occupancy cap.
California has not shown such a justification. The Church has agreed to abide by the State’s rules that apply to comparable secular businesses. That raises important questions:”Assuming all of the same precautions are taken, why can someone safely walk down a grocery store aisle but not a pew? And why can someone safely interact with a brave deliverywoman but not with a stoic minister?”
The Church and its congregants simply want to be treated equally to comparable secular businesses. California already trusts its residents and any number of businesses to adhere to proper social distancing and hygiene practices. The State cannot “assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work or go about the rest of their daily lives in permitted social settings.”
California has ample options that would allow it to combat the spread of COVID-19 without discriminating against religion. The State could “insist that the congregants adhere to social-distancing and other health requirements and leave it at that—just as the Governor has done for comparable secular activities.” Or alternatively, the State could impose reasonable occupancy caps across the board. But absent a compelling justification (which the State has not offered), the State may not take a looser approach with, say, supermarkets, restaurants, factories, and offices while imposing stricter requirements on places of worship.
The State also has substantial room to draw lines, especially in an emergency. But as relevant here, the Constitution imposes one key restriction on that line-drawing: The State may not discriminate against religion.
In sum, California’s 25% occupancy cap on religious worship services indisputably discriminates against religion, and such discrimination violates the First Amendment. The Church would suffer irreparable harm from not being able to hold services on Pentecost Sunday in a way that comparable secular businesses and persons can conduct their activities. I would therefore grant the Church’s request for a temporary injunction. I respectfully dissent.
Thanks to Prof. Marty Lederman (Georgetown) for the pointer; he also adds that California offered this justification for the distinction in its brief:
In the view of state public-health officials, large public gatherings pose a heightened risk of spread because attendees are “stationary in close quarters for extended periods of time.” Moreover, at religious services, “congregants are often speaking aloud and singing, which increases the danger that infected individuals will project respiratory droplets that contain the virus,” “thereby infect[ing] others.” As James Watt, M.D., M.P.H., an epidemiologist with the California Department of Health, explained in a declaration submitted to the district court, there “have been multiple reports of sizable to large gatherings such as religious services, choir practices, funerals, and parties resulting in significant spread of COVID-19.” Defendants pointed, for example, to a worship service in Sacramento tied to 71 COVID-19 cases; a choir practice in Seattle linked to 32 cases; a Kentucky church revival tied to 28 cases; and a religious service in South Korea where over 5,000 cases were traced back to a single infected individual in attendance.
[California’s limit on religious and political gatherings to 25% of building capacity with a 100-attendee cap] is informed by the practical recognition that, “in gatherings of large numbers of people, it may be very hard to maintain physical distancing” and that “measures that depend on individual behavior … are difficult to sustain.” It is also based on evidence that the risk of infection increases rapidly with group size: in a larger group, there is not only a greater chance that one or more people will be infected, but also a larger number of people present and potentially exposed to the virus.
Plaintiffs nonetheless contend that California’s attendance cap is “arbitrary” because “there is no percentage limitation for manufacturing and warehousing facilities.” But these workplaces are not comparable to in-person religious services. Labor in manufacturing facilities, warehouses, and offices does not typically involve large numbers of people singing or reading aloud together in the same place, in close proximity to one another, for an extended duration.
And the State prohibits workplace activities that resemble in-person religious services—for example, meetings of numerous workers in an “auditorium,” “large conference room,” or “meeting hall.” While the State’s new guidance lifted restrictions on in-person worship services and political protests to accommodate core First Amendment-protected activity, the general ban on large gatherings remains in place.