People For the American Way

Trump Justices Again Cast Deciding Votes to Exempt Churches from COVID-19 Rules: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

News and Analysis
Trump Justices Again Cast Deciding Votes to Exempt Churches from COVID-19 Rules: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.

Trump justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett again cast the deciding votes to exempt churches from COVID-19 rules in a 6-3 summary order with almost no explanation in its February 2021 ruling in Gateway City Church v Newsom.

Several churches in Northern California filed a federal lawsuit challenging a county ordinance that temporarily bans all indoor gatherings, including church and other religious services. When the district court denied their motion for a preliminary injunction against the ordinance, they appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the lower court decision and rejected their request for an injunction pending appeal. The appellate court explained that the county’s COVID-19 restriction “applies equally to all indoor gatherings of any kind or type,” Including “public or private” and “religious or secular.” It does not “single out houses of worship” and thus, at least according to the stated rationale for previous Supreme Court rulings, was a rule that “applies across the board” that does not warrant overturning by the courts.

The churches went immediately to the Supreme Court to try to get an injunction while their appeal continues. The county again pointed out that its ordinance treated all indoor gatherings equally and emphasized the important public health need for its rule in order to help combat “the most deadly pandemic in more than a century.” On Thursday February 25, it informed the Court by letter that because of improving conditions in the county, it planned to revise its rule as long as COVID-19 rates continue to decline and allow indoor gatherings, including worship services, at 20% capacity by March 3.

Trump justices and other members of the Court majority, however, were unwilling to wait even several days. On the next night, Friday night February 26, the Court issued an unsigned peremptory order granting the churches’ requested injunction and claiming, without further explanation, that the result wasdictated” by its recent summary order exempting churches from COVID-19 rules in the South Bay case.

The three moderate justices, including Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, dissented for the same reasons as in the South Bay ruling. As a result of the deciding votes by the three Trump justices, this case is yet another “alarming” example, as Justice Kagan put it in South Bay, of the majority “second-guess[ing] the judgment of expert officials” and overruling “science-based policy” by “judicial edict.”