February 23, 2021 | Aaron Mercer, IFA Contributing Writer
The church calendar recently turned to Lent, and Easter is in sight. What is the outlook for in-person worship celebrating this holy season?
Well, after recent U.S. Supreme Court orders, at least it’s now unquestionably permissible in places where other lockdowns have been lifted. A powerful ruling came this month when the high court struck down California’s total ban on indoor religious services.
This was not the first time California churches had appealed their case to the Supreme Court. South Bay United Pentecostal Church near San Diego led a charge in May after the state’s reopening plans seemed to purposefully disfavor houses of worship. At that time the court declined to get involved.
This time was different.
South Bay along with Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena brought their challenge again and were now buttressed by lessons learned over the last 8 months. Many churches and Christians try to go above and beyond in care efforts to show love for their neighbors.
Some states took into account the place of houses of worship more quickly than others. Sadly, some required legal challenges to push them the right direction. But California — the home of nearly 40 million Americans — resisted. Even as other states changed course (voluntarily or not), the Golden State was determined to continue its zero-allowance mandate.
For several of the justices, this case was now a no-brainer. In a statement joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, Justice Neil Gorsuch declared, “When a State so obviously targets religion for differential treatment, our job becomes that much clearer.”
Gorsuch observed that unlike many religious freedom cases the court considers, this one involved no subtle infraction — not even close. He highlighted California’s more stringent requirements on houses of worship since the beginning of the pandemic. They even had their own row in the state’s COVID-19 guidelines!
Now, the justices aren’t ignoring the seriousness of COVID-19 and the suffering it has caused. Gorsuch and his colleagues don’t contest the “compelling interest” of the state battling the virus. What they have a problem with is the targeting of the faithful with more onerous restrictions. In contrast to the ongoing religious ban, Gorsuch noted, “California no longer asks its movie studios, malls, and manicurists to wait.”
He further declared:
Government actors have been moving the goalposts on pandemic-related sacrifices for months, adopting new benchmarks that always seem to put restoration of liberty just around the corner. As this crisis enters its second year — and hovers over a second Lent, a second Passover, and a second Ramadan — it is too late for the State to defend extreme measures with claims of temporary exigency, if it ever could.
Ultimately, while the majority of justices were not yet willing to strike down California’s indoor singing restrictions and generally applicable attendance caps, the court ruled 6-3 to strike down the total ban restricting indoor activities at houses of worship.
Justice Elena Kagan led the dissenting trio, who claimed churches were not being treated unfairly compared to similar types of gatherings. She worried about standing in the way of efforts to fight the pandemic and found it “alarming that the Court second-guesses the judgments of expert officials, and displaces their conclusions with its own.”
Indirectly responding, Chief Justice John Roberts re-stated his desire to show deference to public health leaders. But, he said, the total ban “appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.”
Roberts concluded, “Deference, though broad, has its limits.”
The pandemic is serious and our officials should confront it. However, religious discrimination is illegal. It’s really that simple.
May we pray that state agents not see churches as problems to restrain. Rather, may they come to value us as faithful partners in efforts to bring healing and hope to individuals and communities in this difficult time.
And let’s pray for the light and life of Christ to permeate powerfully in our land this Easter!
Aaron Mercer is a Contributing Writer with two decades of experience in Washington, D.C.’s public policy arena. He reflects on faith, technology, and the public square at FTPolicy.com. (Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash)