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Judges Call on Federal Judge to Reconsider Virus Limits in California Churches

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a decision by a federal trial judge that allowed California to impose restrictions on religious services to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The justices tasked Judge Jesus G. Bernal of the Federal District Court in Riverside, Calif., To reconsider his ruling in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling last month overturning similar limits in New York. The restrictions in California remain in place for now, but they may not survive a fresh look from Judge Bernal when he enforces the new precedent.

The brief Supreme Court order was unsigned and gave no reason, and there were no dissent noted.

The New York decision was a change in the court’s approach to restrictions on religious practice. Prior to Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the court had authorized restrictions in California and Nevada by 5 to 4 votes. In the New York case, decided after Judge Amy Coney Barrett succeeded Judge Ginsburg, the court ruled the other way around, also by a 5-4 vote.

The new case was brought by Harvest Rock Church, a Christian church in Pasadena, and its affiliates across the state. He said the restrictions imposed by Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, violated constitutional protection for the free exercise of religion. The restrictions set varying limits on attendance at church services, depending on a county’s infection rate.

By the end of November, with rising infection rates, most of the state was in “level 1,” the most severe category, so in-person worship services inside are currently banned entirely.

In September, Judge Bernal confirmed the framework for the restrictions. “Because religious activities are restricted only in a similar or inferior manner to comparable non-religious activities,” Judge Bernal wrote, the restrictions were legal.

On October 1, a divided panel of three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco refused to block Judge Bernal’s ruling as an appeal progressed. “The ordinances apply the same restrictions to worship services as to other congregational events inside, such as conferences and cinemas,” the majority said in an unsigned ruling.

The majority relied on a concurring opinion from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in a 5-4 decision in May that supported an earlier version of the restrictions in California. This concurring opinion, widely relied on by courts across the country, was effectively rejected by the recent court ruling in the New York case.

Dissenting in the new California case, Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain said the restrictions treated comparable secular activities more favorably than religious activities.

“In 18 counties in California – home to more than 15 million people and including its most populous county, Los Angeles – indoor religious worship services are completely banned,” Justice O’Scannlain wrote of restrictions then in place. “Yet in those same counties, the state still allows people to come inside to: spend a day shopping in the mall, get their hair done, get a manicure or pedicure, take college courses, producing a TV show or movie, participating in professional sports, washing clothes in a laundromat, and even working in a meat packing plant.

“All of these activities involve gatherings of people from different households for long periods of time – in many cases, hours without interruption,” he wrote. “Many are done close to others, including some – like playing sports, getting a haircut, doing a manicure or playing a scene in a movie – which just can’t be done while practicing distancing. social six-footer and wearing a mask. “

At the Supreme Court, lawyers for Mr Newsom said that “the restrictions on indoor worship activities are the same as – or more permissive than – those imposed on comparable secular gatherings that take place indoors and constitute an equivalent threat to public health.

Seemingly wary of an immediate Supreme Court ruling, the brief urged justices to let lower courts heed the recent ruling. “Before this court takes action,” the brief says, “it should give the lower court an opportunity to quickly assess the plaintiffs’ arguments in light of the” New York case “and the factual circumstances. and current legal issues in California, where Covid-19 is booming.

The Supreme Court accepted the suggestion.

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