California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
© Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
At issue is whether lockdown orders improperly fly in the face of the First Amendment.

The battle over the impact of coronavirus lockdown measures on Americans' religious observances has reached the Supreme Court as a Southern California church and its pastor made an emergency appeal for relief from executive orders issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Lawyers for the South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Bishop Arthur Hodges asked the justices to step in Sunday after a federal appeals court panel rejected a similar emergency application Friday.

The decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals came on the same day President Donald Trump publicly backed churches seeking to escape various stay-at-home orders in place across the country. Trump said he was ordering governors to exempt churches "right now" by declaring religious services to be essential, although he lacks any evident legal authority to impose his view on state officials.

Still, Trump's pointed rhetoric added new fire to the simmering legal battles, including pledges by thousands of churches to defy local public-health restrictions by holding services on Pentecost, which falls next Sunday.

In the California-focused case that reached the high court Sunday night, a 9th Circuit panel split, 2-1, with the majority declining to disturb the state government's action in light of the health dangers posed by the ongoing pandemic.

"We're dealing here with a highly contagious and often fatal disease for which there presently is no known cure,'" Judges Barry Silverman and Jacqueline Nguyen wrote. "In the words of Justice Robert Jackson, if a 'court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.'"

Comment: Wrong-headed and ill-informed rhetoric that lacks even a basic understanding of the virus - but threatens to abuse the basic constitutional rights of US citizens.

Silverman, a Clinton appointee, and Nguyen, an Obama appointee, were dismissive of the church's arguments in the Friday order, devoting only two paragraphs to the substance of the dispute.

However, the third judge on the panel — Trump appointee Daniel Collins — weighed in with an 18-page dissent arguing that Newsom's orders are impermissibly intruding on religious freedom protected by the First Amendment.

"I do not doubt the importance of the public health objectives that the State puts forth, but the State can accomplish those objectives without resorting to its current inflexible and over-broad ban on religious services," Collins wrote.

Collins noted that the orders allow many workplaces to open, but ban religious gatherings even when they could meet the social distancing standards imposed on other activities that are now permitted.

"By explicitly and categorically assigning all in-person 'religious services' to a future Phase 3 — without any express regard to the number of attendees, the size of the space, or the safety protocols followed in such services8 — the State's Reopening Plan undeniably 'discriminate[s] on its face' against 'religious conduct,'" the judge said.