Going to the Chapel (Again): Supreme Court Enjoins California’s Restriction on Indoor Worship, Chastising Ninth Circuit for Failing to Reach Result “Clearly Dictated” by Supreme Court’s Decision Just Days Earlier

Gateway City Church v. Newsom, No. 20A138 (U.S.) February 26, 2021.

In early February the United States Supreme Court enjoined California’s wholesale preclusion of indoor worship, while leaving in place percentage of capacity limitations and restrictions on singing and chanting indoors during services. South Bay United Petecostal Church v. Newsom, No. 20A136, 592 U.S.       (February 5, 2021).   Four opinions issued, as outlined below

  • Justices Thomas and Gorsuch would grant all the relief sought by the church.  
  • Justice Alito would enjoin the capacity and vocalizing restrictions but would stay the injunction on percentage of capacity restrictions to give California an opportunity to demonstrate that only the restrictions in controversy could halt indoor contagion to the same degree as those in place in activities the state deems essential.  
  • Chief Justice Roberts wrote to reiterate the Court’s earlier expression of the importance of deference to political officials in fashioning pandemic relief, but concluded that “deference has its limits,” observing that the issue of singing indoors may be founded in public health but the conclusion that all indoor public worship is unsafe seems ill-considered.
  • Justices Barrett and Kavanaugh opined that the church had not established entitlement to relief from the singing ban, the scope and applicable tests for which are not, in their views, clear.
  • Justice Gorsuch, with Justices Thomas and Alito, would grant all injunctive relief as California’s imposition of more stringent restrictions on churches than on secular activities cannot survive Free Exercise challenge.
  • Justice Gorsuch opined that California could not demonstrate that its unequally applied measures — including a ban on all indoor worship — were the least restrictive means to achieve the government’s inarguably compelling interest in inhibiting the spread of disease.
  • California cannot demonstrate any cognizable difference between personal crowding and mingling in church versus commercial settings and cannot support a total prohibition of worship, Justice Gorsuch concluded.  
  • The inexplicable imposition of more stringent measures on religious activities than on secular gatherings cannot survive strict scrutiny, Justice Gorsuch opined, commenting that the present case ought not have come before the Court, as the Court’s earlier decisions on the same questions compelled the same results in this case.
  • Justice Gorsuch noted that the focus of the present order is on the wholesale preclusion of indoor worship and that additional challenges might be brought concerning other measures.
  • Justice Gorsuch cautioned against championing the singing exclusion as a reasonable deterrent to disease where the entertainment industry has obtained an exemption from it. 
  • Nor is the scope of the singing exclusion comprehensible:  even if an entire congregation singing together might raise risks, what of a single cantor?  California’s confusing regulations do not deserve particular deference. 
  • Whie California offers that some enterprises have adopted self-help in the form of testing requirements, Calfirnai fails to explain why such adaptations would not be permitted to churches. 
  • In all, Justice Gorsuch concluded, Californaita “must do more to tailor the requirements’ of public health to the rights of its people.”  Statement of Gorsuch, J., slip op. at 6.
  • The ”temporary” justification proffered by California rings hollow where “temporary” bans have been in place for months and the nation is entering a second year of restrictions.
  • Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented, observing that as justices they are neither scientists nor experts in public health, into which territory the majority wrongly ventured in this case. The state granted worship parity with similar secular assemblies:  the Court erred in compelling the state to apply rules to churches that apply to less risky gatherings. 
  • The dissenting justices observed that while those who are similarly situated ust be treated similarly, it is not true that those who are not must be compelled to conform to each other, as the Court has done here.  The dissenting justices assert that the same measures such as masking, distancing, singing, and capacity apply to religious and secular activities alike in California.
  • The determination that Free Exercise principles must prevail is faulty in fact, for some religious and secular gatherings are similarly treated, and in law, for the Court has impeded the state in meeting its obligation to promote the health and safety of its people  
  • The Court’s earlier decisions do not compel the present result, the dissent found, because no group was singled out here for inferior treatment  
  • Moreover, as a practical matter, the intrusion of the Court into California’s operations open up entirely new questions to be addressed when time and resources are scarce. If the Court has erred and lives are endangered, the Court will pay no price, the dissent observed, as the justices are insulated by lifetime tenure and physically protected against harm.  

One week after the order was entered in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, supra, the Ninth Circuit denied relief to Gateway City Church, upholding the ban on indoor worship, and concluding that where secular and religious entities were subject to the same restrictions, no constitutional violation could be found, particularly, where houses of worship were not singled out for unfavorable treatment.  Gateway City Church v. Newsom, No. 21-15189 (9th Cir.) February 12, 2021. 

Moreover, the Ninth Circuit found that there had been no showing that the prohibition on indoor gathering was other than a neutral and generally applicable law, requiring no more than rational basis review.  Id.  

Gateway City Church sought relief from the Ninth Circuit’s order in the Supreme Court.  The request was opposed but one day after the opposition was filed that state advised the Supreme Court that the challenged regulations would soon end.

The Supreme Court declined the tacit invitation to allow the church’s request to become moot, and issued an order declaring the Ninth Circuit to have erred, and in particular erred in denying relief to the church when a contrary result was “clearly dictated” by the decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church.  

South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom No. 20A136 , 592 U.S. ___(February 5, 2021)

Gateway City Church v. Newsom, 9th Cir. Order February 12, 2021

Gateway City Church v. Newsom, No. 20A138 , U.S. Sup.Ct. Order February 26, 2021

Faith in the Not So Hot Zone: Second Circuit Denies Synagogues and Churches Relief from New York’s Pandemic Measures

Agudath Israel of America, et al. v. Cuomo, No. 20-3572; Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, No. 20-3590 (2nd. Cir.)  Stay pending appeal denied on November 9, 2020.

New York has restricted gatherings by size according to perceived geographic intensity of COVID-19 infections.  Religious groups have appealed a federal district court’s denial of injunctive relief that would preclude enforcement of New York’s order.  

Noting first that the Jewish petitioners failed to request a stay pending appeal in the federal district court, the Second Circuit then denied relief from operation of the pandemic measures pending appeal to Jews and Catholics alike

The Second Circuit commenced by stating that strict scrutiny does not apply to neutral and generally applicable laws.  The religious groups have been unable to establish that the pandemic restrictions are not neutral.  The restrictions on gatherings affect religion and secular groups similarly, and are premised on the prevalence of infection.  

The Supreme Court recently denied similar relief, the Second Circuit judges found, and the dissent in the appeal in this case has not persuaded the deciding justices that the standard of “reasonableness” at the time of the issuance of the pandemic orders must be viewed in light of changed circumstances. 

Dissenting Judge Park offered that the deciding judges have ruled based on a skewed perception of the zones.  The zone restrictions are not neutral.  Within zones only religious institutions remain restricted while “essential” operations are not.  

The measures not only specifically single out religious entities for special treatment but they also impose burdens that are substantially heavier than those imposed on other entities, in violation of the Free Exercise Clause.

The overtly different treatment of religious groups with an unmistakably disparate impact on these groups cannot be other than intentional. This is supported by the governor’s threat to close Orthodox Jewish institutions should they refuse to comply.

The dissent rejected the Governor’s argument that only rational basis review is needed as in the Governor’s view religious groups are treated more rather than less favorably than others,

The Governor’s position concedes non-neutrality, the dissenting judge observed. 

In the dissent’s view, the characterization of businesses as ‘essential’ and religious entities as ‘inessential’ facially targets religion.  Strict scrutiny is required as more than incidental burdens are evident.

The recent Supreme Court summary decision concerning California’s pandemic measures is not precedent, the dissent stated, because such orders are precedentail only where decided issues are identical.  The standards for relief in the Second Circuit and the temporal considerations are significantly different. 

New York has maintained the same restrictions since the inception of the pandemic notwithstanding marked reduction of disease.  

Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.s. 11 (19050 lacks the significance the Governor wishes it had, as Jacodbson was decided before the First Amendment was incorporated against the states and did not concern free exercise.   

Just as Jacobson does not support deference to indefinite exercise of emergency powers, but rather demands consideration of constitutional constraints, the facts of this case show that the absolute limits imposed on religious gatherings are not narrowly tailored.

The zone restrictions are the same — ten persons — for churches that can hold one thousand persons and those that can hold forty persons and the additional identified risks of singing or chanting make assumptions about religious gatherings not applicable to others.

The court has issued its briefing schedule for the merits with hearing to be scheduled as early as December 14, 2020. 

Agudath Isr. of Am. v. Cuomo (2nd Cir. 2020)

Federal District Court in New York Enjoins Pandemic Precautions Restraining Religious Gatherings

Soos, et al. v. Cuomo, et al., No. 1:20-cv-651 (N.D.N.Y.) (GLS/DJS).  (Order granting injunctive relief entered June 26, 2020).


Since the inception of public health concerns about potential harms should coronavirus (COVID-19) contamination be left unchecked, New York state and city officials have issued not less than seventeen orders dictating who may congregate where and for what purposes.  Religious services fell among the most rigidly curtailed events.

Notwithstanding harms predicted to ensue from close unprotected contact with others, in June mass protests erupted across the United States.

Thousands gathered in New York without official objection.  The governor counseled citizens to be “smart” by practicing social distancing.  It has been reported that, apparently without further elaboration, the Mayor of New York opined that protesting racism presented a “different  question” than did religious events, certain of which he had previously vociferously condemned.

On motion brought by religious leaders, the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York declined to find the public health orders to be “neutral laws of general applicability” presumed to be constitutionally sound even if such laws incidentally burden religion.

The state and local course of conduct created de facto exemptions specifically inhibiting the free exercise of religion, the court found.  The court could not identify a compelling interest which would justify any distinction that would permit public gatherings for some purposes but not for religious purposes. Where irreparable harm could be presumed to flow from the prevention of religious free exercise rights, the court enjoined enforcement of any indoor restrictions greater than those imposed on non-essential entities and any outdoor restrictions.  In both indoor and outdoor settings, social distancing precautions are to be employed.

Soos v. Cuomo No. 20-cv-00651 (N.D.N.Y.) Order June 26 2020