The court’s unsigned order in Tandon v. Newsom signifies the reemergence of religious liberty as a valued jurisprudential principle to the Supreme Court.
On Friday, for the fifth time the U.S. Supreme Court slapped down a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding anti-religious COVID restrictions established by California’s embattled Gov. Gavin Newsom. The court’s unsigned order in Tandon v. Newsom represents much more than a victory for the plaintiffs who sought to host Bible studies in their homes on equal footing with analogous commercial activities: It signifies the reemergence of religious liberty as a valued jurisprudential principle to the Supreme Court.
In the Tandon case, Pastor Jeremy Wong and Karen Busch challenged restrictions the California Department of Public Health placed on Bible studies and prayer meetings held at worshipers’ homes as part of the Golden State’s so-called “Blueprint for a Safer Economy.” California’s “Blueprint” followed several earlier regulations based on authority purportedly provided to the Department of Public Health by Newsom’s proclamation of a state of emergency and later his issuance of a pair of executive orders that directed all Californians to comply with all “State public health directives.” Refusal to do so would subject violators to a misdemeanor conviction and a $1,000 fine or six months’ imprisonment.
Under the tiered system adopted by California’s Department of Public Health, in tier one counties, indoor gatherings were completely prohibited, while indoor gatherings in counties with lower COVID infection rates, falling in tiers two through four of the state’s model, were limited to no more than three households. All tiers were limited to no more than three households for outside gatherings.
Conversely, the state placed no limits on outside gatherings for weddings, funerals, protests, or political events. The state also granted indoor commercial activities much greater leeway for the number of patrons allowed inside for businesses from nail salons to tattoo parlors to museums, movie theaters, gyms, and restaurants.
Because these California regulations barred Wong and Busch from continuing to host Bible study and prayer meetings at their homes, as they had done for years, while allowing outside gatherings and analogous indoor events at commercial businesses with substantially more patrons in attendance, they sued the state for violating their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion.