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Supreme Court allows restrictions on attendance at church services amid coronavirus

California to reopen places of worship
California issues guidelines for reopening places of worship after COVID-19 lockdown 00:44

A divided Supreme Court on Friday refused to block California restrictions that limit attendance at church services. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the four liberals in allowing the restrictions, which impose a 25% occupancy cap or 100-person maximum, to stay in place.

Roberts emphasized the urgent and evolving nature of the coronavirus pandemic gives officials great leeway to protect citizens — a task unelected judges are ill equipped to handle.

"Where those broad limits are not exceeded, they should not be subject to second-guessing by an unelected federal judiciary, which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people," Roberts wrote in a separate concurrence. 

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, wrote a separate dissent. He said California law discriminates against churches because it doesn't apply the 25% cap across the board, singling out churches for disfavored treatment.

"The basic constitutional problem is that comparable secular businesses are not subject to a 25% occupancy cap, including factories, offices, supermarkets, restaurants, retail stores, pharmacies, shopping malls, pet grooming shops, bookstores, florists, hair salons, and cannabis dispensaries," Kavanaugh wrote.

However, Roberts notes in his concurrence that "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."

"The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement," Roberts said.

Justice Samuel Alito also would have granted the injunction but did not join Kavanaugh's dissent. 

Grace Segers contributed to this report.

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