The decision signals the priorities of the court’s new conservative super-majority to protect religious rights, even at the potential expense of public health.
“If Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry,” wrote justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee.
He joined the five other conservatives on the court. They argued the state was singling out religious institutions for stricter rules while other types of establishments have remained open under limited capacity.
“This Court certainly is not downplaying the suffering many have experienced in this pandemic,“ Mr Gorsuch added.
The court ruled religious institutions could re-open for indoor worship with 25 per cent capacity, though didn’t explain how it reached this resolution to the case, which arrived before the tribunal on a fast-tracked emergency appeal with limited briefing.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing in dissent on behalf of the Court’s remaining liberal wing, blasting the ruling as hypocritical, given the Supreme Court itself is conducting business remotely, and warned that the jurists shouldn’t second-guess health experts with “armchair epidemiology.”
“Justices of this Court are not scientists,” she wrote. “If this decision causes suffering, we will not pay. Our marble halls are now closed to the public, and our life tenure forever insulates us from responsibility for our errors. That would seem good reason to avoid disrupting a state’s pandemic response.”
Prior to the death of the progressive justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court had sided with public health experts and allowed religious restrictions to go forward in some cases.
South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, and the statewide Harvest International Ministry were the California churches who challenged the rules.