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Supreme Court sides with church challenging California's COVID restrictions

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Washington — The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with a California church challenging Governor Gavin Newsom's restrictions on indoor worship services amid the spike in coronavirus infections, ordering a federal district court to revisit an earlier ruling against the religious institution.

In a brief unsigned order with no noted dissents, the high court tossed out an order from the federal trial court in the Central District of California, which had upheld Newsom's restrictions. The justices sent the dispute back to the lower court for further consideration in light of its decision last week in a similar challenge to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's restrictions on houses of worship.

In that case, which demonstrated the impact of the court's expanded conservative majority, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of churches and synagogues that argued the limitations on religious institutions in coronavirus hotspots were unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts joined with the three liberal justices in the dispute, while the court's newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, provided the fifth vote for the conservative justices in blocking the limits.

The legal battle in California was brought by Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministries, which argued Newsom's restrictions on the side of religious gatherings were a violation of the First Amendment.

Newsom's rules prohibit indoor worship services in counties designated a "tier 1" based on public health conditions, which currently covers most counties in the state due to the surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. California's "tier 1" counties are those where COVID-19 cases are the most widespread, with an infection rate of 8% or higher, and many non-essential businesses are to be closed.

In their request to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Harvest Rock Church argued that Newsom discriminated against religious institutions while allowing nonreligious entities to continue to gather with fewer restrictions.

"For the governor, COVID-19 restrictions are apparently optional and penalty free. But for Churches or anyone worshipping in their own home with someone who does not live there, COVID-19 restrictions are mandatory and enforced via criminal penalties," lawyers for Harvest Rock wrote in its request to the Supreme Court.

But U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal rejected the church's challenge, and a divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also sided with the state.

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