High court halts California virus rules limiting home worship

The Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 ruling on April 9, has halted California coronavirus-related restrictions that have limited home-based religious worship including Bible studies and prayer meetings.

The order from the court is the latest in a recent number of cases in which the high court has barred officials from enforcing some coronavirus-related restrictions applying to religious gatherings.

The case before the justices involved California rules that in most of the state limit indoor social gatherings to no more than three households. Attendees are required to wear masks and physically distance from one another. Different restrictions apply to places including schools, grocery stores and churches.

“California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise,” allowing hair salons, retail stores, and movie theaters, among other places, “to bring together more than three households at a time,” the unsigned order from the court said. A lower court “did not conclude that those activities pose a lesser risk of transmission than applicants’ proposed religious exercise at home,” it said.

The case before the justices involved two residents of Santa Clara County in the San Francisco Bay Area, who want to host small, in-person Bible study sessions in their homes. California had defended its policy of restricting social gatherings as “entirely neutral.”

The court has dealt with a string of cases in which religious groups have challenged coronavirus restrictions impacting worship services. While early in the pandemic the court sided with state officials over the objection of religious groups, recent decisions have sided with religious groups.

In November, the high court barred New York from enforcing certain limits on attendance at churches and synagogues in areas designated as hard hit by the virus. And in February, the high court told California that it can’t bar indoor church services because of the coronavirus pandemic, though it let stand for now a ban on singing and chanting indoors.

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