WASHINGTON—A divided Supreme Court ordered California to permit in-home prayer meetings even while similar secular gatherings remain restricted by Covid-19 regulations, the latest in a string of high court orders directing officials to subordinate public-health measures to religious exercise.
The court’s 5-4 unsigned order, issued shortly before midnight Friday, provided the clearest direction yet to lower courts that are hearing religious challenges to public-health measures.
The decision comes after a pastor in Santa Clara County challenged coronavirus-related restrictions against in-home gatherings, which prevented him from bringing congregants to his residence for prayer meetings and bible study.
Public-health regulations are suspect “whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise,” the court said. “It is no answer that a state treats some comparable secular businesses or other activities as poorly as or even less favorably than the religious exercise at issue.” Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and the three appointees of former President Donald Trump, Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, formed the majority.
“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,” the court said, and therefore the regulation of at-home religious gatherings violates the First Amendment’s protection for religious exercise.
Source: WSJ – US News