The court’s narrow 5–4 ruling was in favor of a group of Santa Clara residents who asserted the restrictions violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
“Applicants are likely to succeed on the merits of their free exercise claim; they are irreparably harmed by the loss of free exercise rights ‘for even minimal periods of time’; the State has not shown that ‘public health would be imperiled’ by employing less restrictive measures,” an unsigned opinion of the court’s majority said in its opinion.
The ruling is the fifth time the nation’s highest court has overruled the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on California COVID-19 fueled restrictions, including a February ruling that saw the court grant a worshipper’s application asking for restrictions on in-person religious services be rolled back.
“It is unsurprising that such litigants are entitled to relief. California’s Blueprint System contains myriad exceptions and accommodations for comparable activities, thus requiring the application of strict scrutiny,” the majority wrote on Friday.
The blueprint system is the statewide criteria for loosening or tightening restrictions based on the level of CCP virus spread.
Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett made up the majority.
Chief Justice John Roberts, another Republican-nominated justice, joined the court’s liberal wing in dissenting, though he did not sign on to the dissenting opinion authored by Justice Elena Kagan.
Kagan said she would have rejected the application for relief because she felt the state complied with the First Amendment in its limiting religious gatherings in homes to three households since the state had the same restrictions on secular gatherings in homes.
“It has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike. California need not, as the per curiam insists, treat at-home religious gatherings the same as hardware stores and hair salons—and thus unlike at-home secular gatherings, the obvious comparator here,” she wrote.
The original order in the case denying the application for relief came from U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh, who said that in light of “the unique risks of gatherings in spreading COVID-19; the deaths and serious illnesses that result from COVID-19; and the overwhelming strain on the healthcare system,” enjoining the state and county restrictions on in-home religious gatherings “would not be in the public interest.”
The Ninth Circuit’s panel upheld Koh’s ruling, writing last month that “appellants had not satisfied the requirements for the extraordinary remedy of an injunction pending appeal.”
“Specifically, the panel held that appellants had not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits for their free exercise, due process, or equal protection claims, nor had they demonstrated that injunctive relief was necessary for their free speech claims,” the panel wrote.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs and defense did not immediately respond to requests for comment. California had argued in a brief on Thursday that its policy regarding in-home gatherings applied to all gatherings, no matter their purpose, while also offering the Supreme Court did not need to intervene because the state will relax restrictions later this month.