South Bay United Penecoastal Church v. Newsom Summary
In recent news, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, upholding California’s restrictions on religious gatherings. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts explained that the restrictions California imposed were “consistent with the Free Exercise of the First Amendment.” Roberts also reaffirmed the principle that the “safety and health of the people” should be entrusted to politically accountable state officials, and that those officials have broad latitude to protect and health and safety.
This decision has implications for places of worship that are subject to similar restrictions, both in California and elsewhere. Most significantly, places of worship should not act under the belief that a restriction imposed by a state or local government is unenforceable. As this opinion affirms, state and local officials have broad powers in the face of a pandemic or other outbreak, and the restrictions they impose will be presumed reasonable. If a place of worship chooses to disregard state or local restrictions, they will likely be subject to the relevant penalties. For example, in California, anyone who “refuses or willfully neglects” to obey the stay at home order is guilty of a misdemeanor and could be fined up to $1,000, imprisoned for up to six months, or both.
Furthermore, even places of worship located in jurisdictions that have not imposed restrictions on religious gatherings should not assume that they have no responsibility to comply with social distancing guidelines. Aside from being a key part of preventing further spread of COVID-19 and keeping attendants safe, it is possible that those jurisdictions will impose restrictions in the future. Therefore, it will be important to stay informed as to guidance from states and localities, to avoid inadvertently violating stay at home orders or other restrictions on gatherings in the future.