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Supreme Court rejects California church’s appeal challenging restrictions

Are churches entertainment venues? A divided Supreme Court late Friday implied so in rejecting an emergency appeal by a California church that challenged state restrictions on attendance at worship services.

Over the dissent of the four more conservative justices, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s four liberals in turning away a request from the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California, in the San Diego area. Justice Roberts is most notably known for his vote upholding ObamaCare.

The church argued that limits on how many people can attend their services violate constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and had been seeking an order in time for services on Sunday. The church said it has crowds of 200 to 300 people for its services.

READ: DOJ warns California

California’s actions have caught the ire of the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General William Barr.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has warned California Gov. Gavin Newsom that the state’s public health orders may be discriminatory against churches.

In a letter on May 19 the DOJ expressed “several” concerns over the state’s health orders, enacted to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Democrat Newsom’s stay-at-home orders, which have been in place since March, have expressly prohibited large gatherings such as religious ceremonies, churches from remaining open and other religious activities. One community went so far as to ban live-streamed music by churches. The order places churches between movie theaters and large stadium sporting events. As pastors have said, churches are not entertainment venues.

In a three-page letter, Justice Department Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said that while he recognized the governor has a “duty to protect the health and safety of Californians,” he believes the restriction may show discrimination against religious communities.

Roberts wrote in brief opinion that the restriction allowing churches to reopen at 25% of their capacity, with no more than 100 worshipers at a time, “appear consistent” with the First Amendment. Roberts said similar or more severe limits apply to concerts, movies and sporting events “where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in dissent that the restriction “discriminates against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses. Such discrimination violates the First Amendment.” Kavanaugh pointed to supermarkets, restaurants, hair salons, cannabis dispensaries and other businesses that are not subject to the same restrictions.

Lower courts in California had previously turned down the churches’ requests.

The court also rejected an appeal from two churches in the Chicago area that objected to Gov. Jay Pritzker’s limit of 10 worshipers at religious services. Before the court acted, Pritzker modified the restrictions to allow for up to 100 people at a time. There were no recorded dissents.

–Metro Voice and wire services