How the Supreme Court's ruling on houses of worship could affect California

A Supreme Court ruling this week could have a big impact on religious services across the country as the ruling from the high court - rejected strict limits on religious gatherings during the pandemic. That ruling could also affect houses of worship in California. 

How much can the government limit the size of religious services - during a public health crisis?

In a 5-4 ruling, issued the night before Thanksgiving, the Supreme Court said limits that are too strict- are an infringement on religious freedom.

In a case brought by the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two synagogues, the majority of justices said New York and its governor should treat houses of worship no different than malls or businesses when it comes to limiting capacity

The newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett sided with the court's conservative wing in the decision.

UC Hastings law professor David Levine said the ruling opens the door for religious groups to challenge pandemic restrictions in other states.

Last month, Santa Clara County officials fined the Calvary Chapel Church in San Jose more than $300,000 dollars for holding indoor services with as many as 600 people.

"If they haven't paid the fine yet, they could certainly fight the fine on the basis of saying these restrictions were too tight," Levine said. 

Earlier this year, speaking at an event at the very conservative Federalist Society, Justice Samuel Alito made his views on the topic, clear: "The pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty."

Over the summer, the Supreme Court ruled differently in a case involving a church in Southern California. 

In South Bay Pentecostal Church vs Newsom, a 5-4 majority found that state health officials could impose restrictions on the size of religious services.

The difference then, was that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was still on the court.

"There's doubt about it," Levine said. "Religious institutions have new power behind them. They see five justices on the Supreme Court, who are behind pushing religious liberty, here at the expense of public health."

Legal experts say it could be just a matter of time before similar health orders about religious gatherings are challenged in California and other states like New Jersey and Louisiana.