- There has been an ongoing conflict between state authority and various churches and organizations’ concerning the First Amendment.
- The Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of the Roman Catholic Diocese to give them relief from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictive executive actions
- Newsom faces critical pushback in his policies because of the Catholic Diocese decision the High Court handed down.
There has been an ongoing conflict between state authority and various churches and organizations’ concerning the First Amendment. Particularly most severe in California governed by Gavin Newsom along with state health officials during the Covid-19 epidemic.
The Supreme Court cases South Bay United Pentecostal Church number 20-55533, and Harvest Rock Church number 20-56357. Both instances are versus Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is facing harsh criticism for his overall handling of the Covid-19 Crisis in California.
South Bay United
South Bay United Pentecostal Church is located just south of San Diego. They initially filed and fought in the Supreme Court back in May of 2020. They sought relief from California’s original reopening plan last summer. They raised the specific question presented on page i. of their Emergency Application,
“Does California’s four stage Reopening Plan, which permits manufacturing, warehousing, retail, offices, seated dining at restaurants, and schools to reopen, but not places of worship, violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?”
Ultimately the emergency application was denied by the court. After stark argument from the Respondents that “such gatherings are fundamentally different than ordinary business activity,” as was the opinion of the Seventh Circuit in a similar case:
“The Executive Order’s temporary numerical restrictions on public gatherings apply not only to worship services but also the most comparable types of secular gatherings, such as concerts, lectures, theatrical performances, or choir practices, in which groups of people gather together for extended periods, especially where speech and singing feature prominently and raise risks of transmitting the COVID- 19 virus. Worship services do not seem comparable to secular activities permitted under the Executive Order, such as shopping, in which people do not congregate or remain for extended periods.” Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church v. Pritzker, 2020 WL 2517093 (7th Cir. May 16, 2020) (Easterbrook, C.J., Kanne, C.J., Hamilton, C.J.).
The February 5th, 2021 decision of the new Application for Injunctive Relief filed on November 30th, 2020, from South Bay United sees positive results. With what is being called a divided decision by the court, worship centers, primarily churches, have relief now to re-open. They must still observe the limits on the capacity of 25% and the upheld ban on singing and chanting. This will remain in effect until their appeals are resolved.
The court left open the possibility for the applicants, South Bay United, to return to trial court. With the chance to present new evidence that the State of California is not applying either set of capacity restrictions or singing restrictions equally.
In the Harvest Rock Church’s Emergency Application filed January 26th, 2021, a dominant foundation of their argument is found in the recent decision of another Supreme Court case that was decided about the Roman Catholic Diocese in New York:
“even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.” Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, 141 S. Ct. 63, 68 (2020) (Catholic Diocese).
“[t]he restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious worship services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom.” Id.
Justice Gorsuch wrote, “[i]t is time—past time—to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques.” Id. at 72
The decision was ruled in favor of the Roman Catholic Diocese to give them relief from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictive executive actions to restrict 10 and 25 peoples’ attendance, respectively. This was a huge win as it gives way to precedent for Harvest Rock Church in California and others to make the arguments they need to prevail in court. Of course, this will also only remain in effect until their appeals are fully resolved.
Harvest Rock Church was joined in the same opinions of the order granting relief given to South Bay United. That means they both share the temporary lift of the indoor gathering ban while still adhering to the capacity limits and singing ban.
State Mishandling of Covid
Governor Newsom is facing fierce criticisms of his handling over the last year of his state executive policies concerning Covid-19 and public safety. Many of the executive actions he has taken with local health officials’ input have left many Californians in bad shape. From unemployment, rampant fraud with federal monies, issues with distributing the new vaccines, severe lockdowns, and being caught disregarding his own Covid rules, to name a few. His missteps have now triggered calls for his recall as Governor.
In the matters of worship houses and churches, he now faces critical pushback in his policies because of the Catholic Diocese decision the High Court handed down. It is unknown how much he will change course or enact a different approach moving forward during Covid-19. A spokesman for Newsom Daniel Lopez said in an email to the Sacramento Bee,
“We will continue to enforce the restrictions the Supreme Court left in place and, after reviewing the decision, we will issue revised guidelines for worship services to continue to protect the lives of Californians.”
The 6-3 decision of the unsigned opinion opened churches, mosques, any house of worship across the board. Governor Newsom has a compelling interest in trying to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, not at the expense of liberty to the people equally protected for all. In Roberts v. Neace, 958 F.3d 409 (2020), the Sixth Circuit court rightly assessed, “If the Commonwealth trusts its people to innovate around a crisis in their professional lives, surely it can trust the same people to do the same things in the exercise of their faith.”
As he faces multiple challenges with His state, the Governor’s ongoing question will be how much change he will endure against his personal policy preferences. California’s people and political forces are speaking up, threatening his future removal on the ballot at the end of the year, already garnering 1.5 million signatures to make it happen.
Why This Matters
The Supreme Court and the way it operates is a beautiful testament of over two hundred years of Judicial brilliance and the American Way. There have been criticisms of the Justices in these cases over the last year especially. With the Addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett joining the bench, one of the media’s favorite things to do is speculate and over analyze their decisions.
Each Justice must exercise their independence. It matters, especially now when we have such polarizing issues such as the California lockdowns. Topics that are causing a myriad of legal battles and the exposing of interconnectedness and workings between we the people, the states, and the federal.
As the American people, we should all take an interest in all branches of government, from the state levels to the federal. We should care deeply about our civic duty because, as I outlined in this article, the waging battle of our very liberties hangs in the balance.
Yes, it sounds drastic to phrase it like that. But is it not true? Even the Justices know they walk a challenging path in executing judicial power over “health experts.” The balance of the government’s role in health and public safety versus the one true foundation, our Constitution, is a difficult path to navigate. Ultimately, we, the people who speak, vest our government and its officials with power.
If we let our representatives of government run-amok with said powers and trample the Constitution, then we have failed as We the People. It is we, the people, who have the final say, the last word collectively. If not, then bureaucracy, experts, and the unfaithful of our Constitution will rule over us and our lives. We will be none the wiser trading all liberty for security from the government.
To finally say it matters what happens in our legal system and Supreme Court cases. The recourse of the people to have their collective voices heard. One of the arenas of having the will of the people and liberties protected.
Keefer is passionate about America and the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. His writings focus on the intersectionality of faith and culture.