A church in California is asking the Supreme Court to block Gov. Gavin Newsom’s restrictions on in-person church services due to the coronavirus pandemic.
South Bay United Pentecostal Church, represented by the Thomas More Society, filed an initial petition over the weekend arguing that “although curbing the pandemic is a laudable goal” Newsom’s orders “arbitrarily discriminate against places of worship in violation of their right to the Free Exercise of Religion under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
When Newsom announced a new policy Monday allowing the re-opening of churches but limiting services to 25% capacity or 100 people, a lawyer for the group said it would amend its petition, but that that its challenge will go forward.
“Based on a quick review of the California guidelines for a variety of industries, from food packing to manufacturing to indoor shopping centers, none have anywhere as strict a set of capacity controls as have been put on churches,” Peter Breen, Vice President and Senior Counsel of the Thomas More Society told CNN Monday night. “The next closest appears to be shopping centers, at 50% of capacity.”
The Supreme Court has not yet formally accepted the petition.
The thrust to reopen churches has become one of the latest debates in the coronavirus culture wars. In announcing on Friday that his administration would be issuing guidance deeming places of worship “essential,” President Donald Trump called on governors to reopen religious institutions for services. Trump even threatened to “override” governors if their states did not follow the new guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance for religious institutions on Friday.
Churches, synagogues, mosques and other institutions should provide soap and hand sanitizer, encourage the use of cloth masks and clean their facilities daily if they want to open while coronavirus is still spreading, the CDC said. The guidelines also say religious institutions should promote social distancing and consider limiting the sharing of objects such as books and hymnals.
But the recommendations are voluntary, and the administration has not explained what authority Trump would use to “override” governors’ decisions to keep places of worship closed.