Wednesday, March 31, 2021
Ninth Circuit Rebuffs Plaintiffs' Effort to Halt California's COVID Restrictions Based on Free Exercise
The Ninth Circuit yesterday denied plaintiffs' motion for an emergency injunction pending appeal to halt California's COVID restrictions as applied to their religious practices, among other claims. The ruling means that California's restrictions stay in place, at least for now.
The case raises, once again, the question of the relevant comparator in determining whether the restrictions are neutral with regard to religion, or whether they target religion.
The plaintiffs challenged California's restrictions on private "gatherings" as applied to their in-home religious studies. Under the state's restrictions, indoor and outdoor gatherings are limited to three households; and gatherings must be held in a large enough space to allow distancing of six feet, they must last no longer than two hours, and attendees must wear face coverings. Singing, chanting, shouting, and cheering are allowed at outdoor gatherings, but not indoor gatherings.
The plaintiffs argued that the restrictions prevent them from holding in-home Bible studies and communal worship with more than three households, even though California allows more than three households to engage in certain commercial activities. They said that this amounts to religious targeting, triggering strict scrutiny.
The court rejected the argument. The court said that the plaintiffs were looking to the wrong class of activities to compare: "When compared to analogous secular in-home private gatherings, the State's restrictions on in-home private religious gatherings are neutral and generally applicable and, thus, subject to rational basis review." The court said that "[t]here is no indication that the State is applying the restrictions to in-home private religious gatherings any differently than to in-home private secular gatherings." As to the restrictions' application to small businesses and commercial activities (like barbershops and tattoo parlors), the court acknowledged that these businesses are not subject to the three-household restriction, but noted that they're subject to a host of other restrictions that are directed to the particular, place-specific risks that they raise.
Judge Bumatay dissented, arguing that the state's restrictions target religion, because they don't apply equally to small businesses and commercial activities (again, like barbershops and tattoo parlors). Judge Bumatay would therefore apply strict scrutiny, rule that the plaintiffs showed that they'd likely succeed on the merits, and enjoin the restrictions.