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Roberts joins liberal justices to rule against church challenging harsh COVID restrictions


The court's conservative justices vehemently disagreed with their colleauges

Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the high court's liberal justices to rule against a California church seeking to overturn Gov. Gavin Newsom's limits on church attendance.

The significant development received little attention due to ongoing protests and riots in cities across the U.S., sparked by the tragic death of George Floyd.

In a 5-4 decision, which was handed down just before midnight, Roberts and the Supreme Court's liberal justices ruled against South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista.

The ruling upholds Newsom's restrictions, which limit churches to 25% capacity or 100 maximum total attendees during a church service. South Bay United, which typically sees between 200-300 worshipers during its services, challenged the order by arguing that it violated their First Amendment rights.

Roberts, however, disagreed.

The chief justice wrote in a brief opinion that Newsom's restrictions "appear consistent with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment."

"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," Roberts wrote. "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."

The court's steadfast conservative justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh — dissented.

Kavanaugh, who wrote the dissenting opinion, said that California's "safety guidelines discriminate against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses."

"Such discrimination violates the First Amendment," Kavanaugh declared.

"California's 25% occupancy cap on religious worship services indisputably discriminates against religion, and such discrimination violates the First Amendment," he explained. "The Church would suffer irreparable harm from not being able to hold services on Pentecost Sunday in a way that comparable secular businesses and persons can conduct their activities."

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