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Supreme Court lifts California restrictions on at-home religious gatherings

(JTA) — The Supreme Court extended a string of decisions overturning pandemic restrictions on religious gatherings, ruling Friday night that California’s restrictions on at-home gatherings unfairly limited religious freedom.

The 5-4 ruling, in which Chief Justice John Roberts again joined the liberal justices in the minority, lifted rules limiting at-home gatherings in much of the state to three households. Those rules, imposed during a recent surge of COVID-19 cases in California, were set to expire April 15.

A Christian pastor and a group of others had asked the court to lift California’s restriction on at-home gatherings so they could host Bible study classes and prayer groups. They argued that the state was restricting their religious liberties by forbidding such gatherings in houses of worship and limiting the size of at-home gatherings.

The conservative majority argued that the restrictions privileged secular activities like restaurants, salons and sporting events over religious gatherings. In the dissent, Justice Elena Kagan disagreed, noting that all at-home gatherings were restricted, including those for secular purposes.

The decision follows a trend in which the 5-4 conservative majority, solidified by Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment in October, has overturned COVID restrictions on religious gatherings. In November, the court blocked New York’s restrictions on houses of worship after the Orthodox Jewish advocacy group Agudath Israel, along with the Brooklyn Catholic Diocese, sued the state. In December, the court issued a similar ruling in response to an appeal by a New Jersey rabbi and priest.

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