In a dangerous violation of constitutional rights, the U.S. Supreme Court May 29 in a 5-4 vote upheld restrictions on freedom of worship imposed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Claiming to safeguard public health from coronavirus, Newsom compromised protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights that are needed and used by workers and farmers to defend ourselves from government interference in our lives and in our struggles. Those voting to back government limits on religious freedom included all four so-called liberal justices, along with Chief Justice John Roberts.
The court rejected a challenge by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, which sought to overturn Newsom’s executive order banning people from worshipping together once a church had reached 25% of its capacity or 100 congregants, whichever was less.
The church had argued that under Newsom’s order many secular establishments — including retail outlets — weren’t saddled with such restrictions, making the executive order discriminatory.
The same day, the court upheld a now-lapsed limit imposed by Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker restricting religious gatherings in that state to no more than 10 people.
Both decisions strike blows at the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the government from establishing a state religion or prohibiting anyone from free exercise of the religion of their choice. The same amendment forbids the government from abridging freedom of speech, or of the press, or “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Pastor Jim Franklin at Cornerstone Church in Fresno, California, says he will defy the court’s ruling. His church has a 1,400 capacity and he will allow 350 people into its services — in line with the 25% capacity ruling but well over the 100 limit Newsom says is legal.
No justice stood for the principle that the government of California is barred from interfering with the free exercise of religion. They all voted for or against backing Newsom’s order by comparing it to bans that California imposes on other activity. Chief Justice Roberts voted for the ruling, arguing the governor’s restriction on church gatherings was not as severe as the state government’s complete bans on what Roberts claimed were “comparable secular gatherings,” such as the outright ban on concerts and sports events.
Regardless of the severity or laxness of other restrictions, the working class has an unequivocal stake in safeguarding the right to freedom of worship. It is a central conquest of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the U.S., barring the government from interfering with our rights.
Restrictions enforced by governments in the name of “combating the virus” have been used to attack free speech and the right to protest, from Hong Kong to Chile. Bans that have hit the working class especially hard include constraints on visiting relatives in nursing homes and participating in face-to-face first-step meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous.
This type of abrogation of the Bill of Rights will be used by the capitalist rulers to justify curbs on rights we need to organize today. It will increasingly be relied upon as battles against the employers, their governments and other social struggles pick up.
Legal challenges are still pending against executive orders restricting the right to worship in other states. In Oregon, Gov. Katherine Brown threatens to jail people for up to 30 days if they attend a church service of more than 25 people.