May 30, 2020 – Tonight, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request for a religious exemption to California’s public health order that temporarily limits both religious and secular gatherings – a measure enacted to protect people from the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Casting the deciding vote in a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts explained: “Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time. And the Order exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks, and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.” 

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, issued the following statement:

“The Supreme Court’s order allows Governor Newsom to protect the health and religious freedom of the people of California. Governor Newsom’s public health order, which applies to both religious and secular gatherings, does not violate religious freedom; it advances it by ensuring that the government is not favoring some people’s religious practices in a way that endangers other people’s lives.

“We applaud the faith leaders who are finding new methods to provide solace, spiritual guidance and community to their congregations while it is still unsafe for them to meet in person. Because COVID-19 can spread easily at both religious and secular gatherings, we are all relying on each other to follow the advice of health experts to keep everyone well.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court also refused to take action in a similar Illinois case after Gov. Jay Pritzker lifted all restrictions on religious services on Thursday.

Americans United has filed amicus briefs in both the California case, South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, and the Illinois case, Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church v. Pritzker, as well as in 16 similar cases nationwide. AU has urged courts to protect both public health and religious freedom by treating secular and religious gatherings equally.

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the nonprofit educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.