Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom
The state of California lets large, non-essential retailers like Macy’s open to hundreds of shoppers, yet prevents houses of worship from opening their doors to even one worshipper—no matter how large the worship space. Harvest Rock Church sued California, asking for religious worship to be treated at least as well as non-essential retail (which can be open at 20% capacity). Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Harvest Rock, pointing out that California’s complete ban on indoor religious worship is the most severe in the nation, and violates the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo.
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The most extreme restrictions in the nation
Nationwide, almost all states have recognized that it is possible to conduct indoor religious worship services while still combating the COVID-19 pandemic. Thirty-three states do not restrict the size of indoor religious worship gatherings at all. Eleven states have set only percentage-of-occupancy limits on religious worship services, allowing churches to worship within 50% or 75% of their occupancy limits. And only three other states (Maine, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) have enforceable numerical caps on indoor worship services—ranging in size from 50 persons to 150 persons. California stands alone in its absolute prohibition on religious worship, regardless of the size of the worship space.
As a result, in California, non-essential retail, big-box, and department stores can open their doors to hundreds of mingling shoppers seeking retail therapy, but a church cannot open its doors to a worship service where attendees are properly social distanced and comply with masking requirements.
This unfair treatment is unconstitutional. In Harvest Rock’s appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief pointing out that the Supreme Court’s decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo controls the outcome here. In Diocese of Brooklyn, the Court concluded that New York could not simultaneously allow “non-essential” retail stores to operate with percentage-of-occupancy caps (potentially opening their doors to hundreds of shoppers) while imposing 10– or 25-person hard caps on religious worship (regardless of the size of the religious worship space). The right to worship, protected by the First Amendment, should not be treated less favorably than comparable secular conduct like shopping at retail stores.
Since Diocese of Brooklyn was decided, other courts (including the Second Circuit and the Sixth Circuit), have come to the same conclusion, and a different group of Ninth Circuit judges threw out Nevada’s caps just last month. The Ninth Circuit should throw out California’s extreme worship ban as well.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- Religious Communities: Meeting together to worship is an important part of almost all religious or spiritual traditions worldwide. The government cannot discriminate against religious believers by violating their rights to assemble together or by subjecting them to unfair restrictions that privilege other activities over the inalienable right to worship.