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After school shooting, Knoxville bishop asks for 'positive solutions' to gun violence

Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville / Catholic News Agency

Washington D.C., Apr 12, 2021 / 17:22 pm (CNA).

Bishop Richard Stika of the Diocese of Knoxville demanded “positive solutions” to gun violence after a fatal shooting at an area high school on Monday. 

“Once again and regrettably, I am asking for prayers for the victims of another terrible shooting in Knoxville,” Bishop Stika wrote in a statement on Monday. “I have been monitoring today’s unfortunate and violent incident and offer my personal prayers for all of the victims, including a law-enforcement officer.”

According to local authorities, one person was killed and a police officer was injured Monday during a shooting at Knoxville’s Austin-East High School. Knoxville police said that officers had responded to reports of an armed male at the school, who was subsequently killed in a shooting when confronted by police, according to ABC 8 News.

One police officer was injured and is recovering at a local hospital with non-life threatening injuries. 

Bishop Stika on Monday decried ongoing acts of violence and called for prayers and “positive solutions.”

“The series of tragic events that has taken place in recent weeks in Knoxville, especially involving the Austin-East community, and those that have taken place throughout the United States, demonstrate that violence in our society remains a serious, almost daily occurrence and that it claims victims in many different ways,” the bishop wrote.

Four teenagers in Knoxville had already been killed by gun violence since Jan. 27, according to the. Knoxville News Sentinel.

“As a nation, we must commit ourselves to work to turn away from violence and find real solutions that lead us to love, compassion, and decency,” he stated. 

“As Bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville, I pledge to do what I can to help. Prayers are important, but communities must come together to find positive solutions to this ongoing problem in our country.”

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigations is reviewing the incident and the circumstances that led to the shooting, the Knoxville Police Department said on Monday.

The department said that on Monday afternoon around 3:15 p.m., it received reports of a male armed with a gun at the school. Officers responded and found the suspect in a bathroom. After they ordered the suspect to come out, he fired gunshots, injuring one officer. An officer returned fire, and the suspect was pronounced dead at the scene.

This story was updated on April 13.

St Paul-Minneapolis archbishop prays for peace, caution after Daunte Wright shooting

A protester argues with a Minnesota State Patrol outside the Brooklyn Center Police Station after a police officer shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn., April 12, 2021. Credit: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images.

St. Paul, Minn., Apr 12, 2021 / 17:09 pm (CNA).

On Monday, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Saint Paul and Minneapolis prayed for all parties involved in the police shooting of Daunte Wright. 

“I have been praying for [Wright’s] eternal repose, for his family and for all those who loved him,” Archbishop Hebda said April 12. He added he was “also praying for the Brooklyn Center Police officer involved in the shooting, and for her family and friends. I suspect that they are grieving in a different way.”

At a traffic stop April 11 in Brooklyn Center, a suburb of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, police officers attempted to arrest Wright, a black man, for what they said was an outstanding arrest warrant. After Wright resisted arrest to escape in his car, one of the officers shot him. Wright drove several blocks before crashing. He died on the scene of the crash. 

Referencing body camera video footage, the chief of police said he believed the shooting was an accident, as the officer intended to tase Wright. The officer was placed on administrative leave. 

The shooting of Wright occurred during the nationally heated trial of Derek Chauvin, a Minnesota police officer who is accused of killing George Floyd. The coupling of events has sparked protests, rioting, and looting across Minneapolis. The National Guard was deployed and a curfew was imposed.

“While early indications point towards the shooting being accidental” the archbishop said, “I encourage allowing investigators from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to complete a thorough investigation before coming to any personal judgments as to what occurred.”

Hebda called on the community to “pause and pray, particularly during this time of already heightened tension due to the Chauvin trial.” The archbishop also mentioned that he was “encouraged and inspired by the pleas for peace that have continued to come from the family of George Floyd.”

He concluded by asking that “all of us take time daily to pray for justice, but also for peace in our families and in our communities.”

St Paul-Minneapolis archbishop prays for peace, caution after Daunte Wright shooting

A protester argues with a Minnesota State Patrol outside the Brooklyn Center Police Station after a police officer shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn., April 12, 2021. Credit: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images.

St. Paul, Minn., Apr 12, 2021 / 17:09 pm (CNA).

On Monday, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Saint Paul and Minneapolis prayed for all parties involved in the police shooting of Daunte Wright. 

“I have been praying for [Wright’s] eternal repose, for his family and for all those who loved him,” Archbishop Hebda said April 12. He added he was “also praying for the Brooklyn Center Police officer involved in the shooting, and for her family and friends. I suspect that they are grieving in a different way.”

At a traffic stop April 11 in Brooklyn Center, a suburb of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, police officers attempted to arrest Wright, a black man, for what they said was an outstanding arrest warrant. After Wright resisted arrest to escape in his car, one of the officers shot him. Wright drove several blocks before crashing. He died on the scene of the crash. 

Referencing body camera video footage, the chief of police said he believed the shooting was an accident, as the officer intended to tase Wright. The officer was placed on administrative leave. 

The shooting of Wright occurred during the nationally heated trial of Derek Chauvin, a Minnesota police officer who is accused of killing George Floyd. The coupling of events has sparked protests, rioting, and looting across Minneapolis. The National Guard was deployed and a curfew was imposed.

“While early indications point towards the shooting being accidental” the archbishop said, “I encourage allowing investigators from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to complete a thorough investigation before coming to any personal judgments as to what occurred.”

Hebda called on the community to “pause and pray, particularly during this time of already heightened tension due to the Chauvin trial.” The archbishop also mentioned that he was “encouraged and inspired by the pleas for peace that have continued to come from the family of George Floyd.”

He concluded by asking that “all of us take time daily to pray for justice, but also for peace in our families and in our communities.”

Catholic aid group praises Biden’s proposed boost to foreign assistance

People wait outside a distribution point to receive aid rations in Oromia Region, Ethiopia, in February 2018 / Will Baxter/Catholic Relief Services

Washington D.C., Apr 12, 2021 / 17:00 pm (CNA).

A Catholic aid agency is praising President Biden’s 2022 fiscal year budget request for its focus on fighting poverty.

“The administration’s proposal to increase poverty-focused international assistance in its FY22 budget request demonstrates a steadfast commitment to American leadership abroad,” stated Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission, mobilization and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), on Friday.

The White House released its discretionary funding request for fiscal year 2022 on Friday. The request is a summary of the administration’s full budget, which will be released later.

Included in the request is $1 billion in U.S. foreign assistance for fighting infectious diseases around the globe, as well as $2.5 billion for international climate programs.

O’Keefe said that the proposed funding “will be vital” to fighting global poverty, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 has plunged tens of millions of families further into poverty, threatening their ability to put food on the table,” O’Keefe stated. “The U.S. is a blessed nation. It’s our moral responsibility as Americans to protect the life and dignity of those most in need.”

Increased foreign assistance will help the United States counter the threats of climate change and future pandemics, O'Keefe said, adding that it will also boost the U.S. response to "the complex challenges plaguing Central America.”

In 2019, CRS criticized President Trump’s proposal to cut foreign aid by nearly 25%.

The 2022 federal budget process is also expected to feature a debate over taxpayer funding of abortions.

Biden’s budget request did not specifically mention abortion funding, but pro-life groups are warning that a proposed $340 million increase for the Title X family planning program would fund pro-abortion groups.

While the Trump administration set up safeguards against Title X funding of abortion clinics – forbidding grantees from referring for abortions or being co-located with abortion clinics – the Biden administration is currently in the process of rolling back those requirements.

In addition, Biden’s budget request includes funding of the UN’s population fund (UNFPA). The Trump administration stopped funding the UNFPA in 2017 over its partnership with the Chinese government, claiming that the organization was complicit in China’s practice of forced abortions.

“Biden’s funding proposal further raises the stakes for inclusion of the Hyde family of longstanding pro-life policies,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, on Friday. 

The Hyde Amendment – federal policy that bars funding of elective abortions in appropriations – has been enacted in law since 1976 as a rider to budget bills. However, Biden in 2019 reversed his long-standing support for the policy, and has opposed it as president. Democratic leadership in Congress have also called for the repeal of the policy.

“Under his radical Cabinet appointees, funding increases will translate to a payday for abortion giants like Planned Parenthood and Marie Stopes International, and greater complicity in human rights abuses around the world,” Dannenfelser stated. “We strongly urge our congressional allies to reject any budget that omits these vital protections.”

Democratic leaders have also called for the repeal of other pro-life funding policies such as the Helms Amendment, which forbids federal funding of international abortions. President Biden has already allowed for federal funding of pro-abortion foreign NGOs by repealing the Mexico City Policy.

 

 

 

Catholic aid group praises Biden’s proposed boost to foreign assistance

People wait outside a distribution point to receive aid rations in Oromia Region, Ethiopia, in February 2018 / Will Baxter/Catholic Relief Services

Washington D.C., Apr 12, 2021 / 17:00 pm (CNA).

A Catholic aid agency is praising President Biden’s 2022 fiscal year budget request for its focus on fighting poverty.

“The administration’s proposal to increase poverty-focused international assistance in its FY22 budget request demonstrates a steadfast commitment to American leadership abroad,” stated Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission, mobilization and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), on Friday.

The White House released its discretionary funding request for fiscal year 2022 on Friday. The request is a summary of the administration’s full budget, which will be released later.

Included in the request is $1 billion in U.S. foreign assistance for fighting infectious diseases around the globe, as well as $2.5 billion for international climate programs.

O’Keefe said that the proposed funding “will be vital” to fighting global poverty, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 has plunged tens of millions of families further into poverty, threatening their ability to put food on the table,” O’Keefe stated. “The U.S. is a blessed nation. It’s our moral responsibility as Americans to protect the life and dignity of those most in need.”

Increased foreign assistance will help the United States counter the threats of climate change and future pandemics, O'Keefe said, adding that it will also boost the U.S. response to "the complex challenges plaguing Central America.”

In 2019, CRS criticized President Trump’s proposal to cut foreign aid by nearly 25%.

The 2022 federal budget process is also expected to feature a debate over taxpayer funding of abortions.

Biden’s budget request did not specifically mention abortion funding, but pro-life groups are warning that a proposed $340 million increase for the Title X family planning program would fund pro-abortion groups.

While the Trump administration set up safeguards against Title X funding of abortion clinics – forbidding grantees from referring for abortions or being co-located with abortion clinics – the Biden administration is currently in the process of rolling back those requirements.

In addition, Biden’s budget request includes funding of the UN’s population fund (UNFPA). The Trump administration stopped funding the UNFPA in 2017 over its partnership with the Chinese government, claiming that the organization was complicit in China’s practice of forced abortions.

“Biden’s funding proposal further raises the stakes for inclusion of the Hyde family of longstanding pro-life policies,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, on Friday. 

The Hyde Amendment – federal policy that bars funding of elective abortions in appropriations – has been enacted in law since 1976 as a rider to budget bills. However, Biden in 2019 reversed his long-standing support for the policy, and has opposed it as president. Democratic leadership in Congress have also called for the repeal of the policy.

“Under his radical Cabinet appointees, funding increases will translate to a payday for abortion giants like Planned Parenthood and Marie Stopes International, and greater complicity in human rights abuses around the world,” Dannenfelser stated. “We strongly urge our congressional allies to reject any budget that omits these vital protections.”

Democratic leaders have also called for the repeal of other pro-life funding policies such as the Helms Amendment, which forbids federal funding of international abortions. President Biden has already allowed for federal funding of pro-abortion foreign NGOs by repealing the Mexico City Policy.

 

 

 

Haitian bishops condemn kidnappings of Catholic priests, nuns

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption - Cap-Haitien, Haiti / Rotorhead 30A Productions/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Apr 12, 2021 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

Seven Catholic priests and nuns were kidnapped in Haiti on Sunday, and are being held for ransom.

The five priests and two nuns were abducted at Croix-des-Bouquets, a suburb of Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince. According to local news, they were taken while on the way to attend the installation of a parish priest. 

According to Haitian media, the “400 Mawozo” gang admitted culpability for the kidnapping, and is demanding $1 million in ransom. 

Two of the kidnapped, one priest and one nun, are citizens of France.

Church leaders in Haiti have condemned the kidnappings, and called for action to be taken against the perpetrators.

Fr. Gilbert Peltrop, the secretary general of the Haitian Conference of the Religious, told Reuters that “the nation must stand up to fight these thugs.” 

Bishop Pierre-André Dumas, vice president of the Episcopal Conference of Haiti and the bishop of Anse-à-Veau et Miragoâne, told AFP that “the Church prays and stands in solidarity with all the victims of this heinous act.” 

“This is too much,” he said. “The time has come for these inhuman acts to stop.” 

The Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince warned in a statement that gang violence has reached “unprecedented” levels in the country.

“For some time now, we have been witnessing the descent into hell of Haitian society,” the archdiocese stated, as reported by AFP. “The public authorities who are doing nothing to resolve this crisis are not immune from suspicion,” the statement continued, condemning “complacency and complicity.”

The number of kidnappings for ransom has recently increased in Haiti, and protests have denounced the surge of violence plaguing the country. 

Over the Easter Triduum, four members of a church were kidnapped during a ceremony that was being broadcast live on Facebook.

On April 1, four members of the Seventh-day Adventist Gospel Kreyòl Ministry Church in Diquini, Haiti were abducted while performing at the ceremony. Many who were watching the service reportedly thought the kidnapping was an April Fool’s Day prank, before realizing they had witnessed a crime. 

The foursome, including the church’s pastor, pianist, and two technicians, were held as hostages until Easter Sunday, and were released after a ransom was paid.

Dr. Gregory M. Figaro, whose father founded the church in Diquini, was present at the kidnapping and said a man with a gun gained entry to the church after knocking on the door. 

“If this can happen, then anything is possible in the country because there is no respect for any institution, whether it’s a church or school,” Figaro told the Miami Herald after the kidnapping. “They are even grabbing people from inside their home.”

Haiti has also been affected by other crises, including natural disasters and a lack of health care infrastructure to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

A 2010 earthquake killed 200,000 people and left one million people homeless; one decade later, tens of thousands were still living in tent camps.

In October 2016, more than 1.4 million people were in need of emergency aid after Hurricane Matthew made landfall.

Violent protests have also occurred in Haiti since July 2018, with protesters calling for the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse.

Indiana bill would make religious services 'essential' during declared emergencies

The Indiana capitol. / Aeypix/Shutterstock

Indianapolis, Ind., Apr 12, 2021 / 15:01 pm (CNA).

The Indiana legislature on Thursday sent a bill to the governor which would classify religious services as essential during declared disaster emergencies, and would prevent the government imposing any restrictions on religious services that are more restrictive than those imposed on other essential organizations.

“Religious organizations provide essential services that are necessary for the health and welfare of the public during a disaster emergency,” the bill reads.

The bill does not exclude the government from imposing health, safety, or occupancy requirements on religious services, provided that they are equally applied to other operations deemed essential.

In addition, these restrictions may not, the bill says, impose a “substantial burden” on a religious service without a compelling governmental interest, and the restrictions must be the “least restrictive means” of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

Churches throughout the U.S. filed several lawsuits in the past year against local authorities, complaining of unequal coronavirus restrictions on religious services in comparison to comparable secular activities.

New York state in October had limited indoor religious gatherings in certain areas to only 10 people, with other areas limited to 25 people, due to the spread of the virus in those areas, while allowing other venues to open and operate under far fewer restrictions.

The Supreme Court in November issued a ruling enjoining Governor Andrew Cuomo from enforcing those limits following an appeal from the Diocese of Brooklyn.

In California, Harvest Rock Church filed a lawsuit against the state over its restrictions on worship, which effectively prohibited all indoor services, while allowing stores and restaurants to open with capacity limits.

A district court would not grant its request to halt the restrictions. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled against the church in October, refusing to overrule the district court’s decision and saying that while the state provided expert testimony to support its public health restrictions, the church had not provided its own health expert to make its case.

In a November 2020 appeal to the Supreme Court, Harvest Rock alleged that Governor Gavin Newsom had applied a double-standard during the nine months of the pandemic, curbing religious services while allowing comparable non-religious gatherings and mass protests to continue “without numerical restriction.”

The Supreme Court accepted the church’s appeal, vacated the Ninth Circuit decision, and sent the case back to the circuit court for consideration in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Brooklyn diocese case.

However, the appeals court ruled in January 2021 for a second time against Harvest Rock, deciding that a total ban on indoor worship services in most areas of the state is justified to block the spread of coronavirus, but also that the state could not enforce numerical restrictions on worshippers in certain areas.

A February unsigned order from the Supreme Court said that the total ban on indoor worship is unconstitutional. At most, the state may limit indoor capacity to 25% of normal.

High Plains Harvest Church in Eaton, Colorado, appealed to the Supreme Court in December against the state’s COVID restrictions, charging that the state’s restrictions were “transparently selective and discriminatory” in subjecting churches to limits that some retail stores were exempted from.

In response, the state reclassified houses of worship as “critical businesses,” exempting them from capacity limits to which other non-essential businesses were subject.

Indiana bill would make religious services 'essential' during declared emergencies

The Indiana capitol. / Aeypix/Shutterstock

Indianapolis, Ind., Apr 12, 2021 / 15:01 pm (CNA).

The Indiana legislature on Thursday sent a bill to the governor which would classify religious services as essential during declared disaster emergencies, and would prevent the government imposing any restrictions on religious services that are more restrictive than those imposed on other essential organizations.

“Religious organizations provide essential services that are necessary for the health and welfare of the public during a disaster emergency,” the bill reads.

The bill does not exclude the government from imposing health, safety, or occupancy requirements on religious services, provided that they are equally applied to other operations deemed essential.

In addition, these restrictions may not, the bill says, impose a “substantial burden” on a religious service without a compelling governmental interest, and the restrictions must be the “least restrictive means” of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

Churches throughout the U.S. filed several lawsuits in the past year against local authorities, complaining of unequal coronavirus restrictions on religious services in comparison to comparable secular activities.

New York state in October had limited indoor religious gatherings in certain areas to only 10 people, with other areas limited to 25 people, due to the spread of the virus in those areas, while allowing other venues to open and operate under far fewer restrictions.

The Supreme Court in November issued a ruling enjoining Governor Andrew Cuomo from enforcing those limits following an appeal from the Diocese of Brooklyn.

In California, Harvest Rock Church filed a lawsuit against the state over its restrictions on worship, which effectively prohibited all indoor services, while allowing stores and restaurants to open with capacity limits.

A district court would not grant its request to halt the restrictions. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled against the church in October, refusing to overrule the district court’s decision and saying that while the state provided expert testimony to support its public health restrictions, the church had not provided its own health expert to make its case.

In a November 2020 appeal to the Supreme Court, Harvest Rock alleged that Governor Gavin Newsom had applied a double-standard during the nine months of the pandemic, curbing religious services while allowing comparable non-religious gatherings and mass protests to continue “without numerical restriction.”

The Supreme Court accepted the church’s appeal, vacated the Ninth Circuit decision, and sent the case back to the circuit court for consideration in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Brooklyn diocese case.

However, the appeals court ruled in January 2021 for a second time against Harvest Rock, deciding that a total ban on indoor worship services in most areas of the state is justified to block the spread of coronavirus, but also that the state could not enforce numerical restrictions on worshippers in certain areas.

A February unsigned order from the Supreme Court said that the total ban on indoor worship is unconstitutional. At most, the state may limit indoor capacity to 25% of normal.

High Plains Harvest Church in Eaton, Colorado, appealed to the Supreme Court in December against the state’s COVID restrictions, charging that the state’s restrictions were “transparently selective and discriminatory” in subjecting churches to limits that some retail stores were exempted from.

In response, the state reclassified houses of worship as “critical businesses,” exempting them from capacity limits to which other non-essential businesses were subject.

California’s limit on home religious gatherings too strict, US Supreme Court says

U.S. Supreme Court building / Steven Frame/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Apr 12, 2021 / 13:49 pm (CNA).

California’s coronavirus restrictions on home-based religious gatherings like Bible studies, worship and prayer meetings were more strict than the constitution allows, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a 5-4 court order late Friday.

Citing an appeals court decision in a different case, the unsigned majority’s court order said the state cannot “assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work.”

California had said its restrictions on social gatherings was “entirely neutral.” Its current coronavirus mitigation rules have limited indoor social gatherings to no more than three households, and attendees must wear masks and keep physical distance from each other.

These rules were challenged by Rev. Jeremy Wong and Karen Busch,  two residents of Santa Clara County, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They wanted to host small, in-person Bible studies in their homes, the Associated Press said. In the case known as Tandon v. Newsom, they objected that the limits interfered with their free exercise of religion.

“There is zero evidence that an indoor Bible study is riskier than a trip to the movies, dinner in a restaurant, a workout in a gym or a gathering with dozens of friends at a winery, brewery, distillery or bowling alley,” the plaintiffs said in their appeal to the Supreme Court, the New York Times reports.

The Supreme Court’s order critiqued the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, saying “instead of requiring the State to explain why it could not safely permit at-home worshipers to gather in larger numbers while using precautions used in secular activities, the Ninth Circuit erroneously declared that such measures might not ‘translate readily’ to the home.”

The order faulted the appellate court’s series of decisions on California rules.

“This is the fifth time the Court has summarily rejected the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of California’s COVID restrictions on religious exercise,” said the order. “It is unsurprising that such litigants are entitled to relief.”

“California’s Blueprint System contains myriad exceptions and accommodations for comparable activities, thus requiring the application of strict scrutiny,” the Supreme Court said. Under this standard, the state must pursue its interest through laws that are “narrowly tailored.”

David Cortman, senior counsel and vice president of U.S. litigation with the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group, welcomed the decision.

“With this fifth rejection of California’s COVID-19 restrictions on religious exercise, the Supreme Court has made abundantly clear that the government has a duty to respect the First Amendment in this context and many others,” Cortman said April 10.

“As the court explained, the government can’t single out religious activities for harsher treatment than non-religious ones,” he added. “The court also rejected the idea that such unfair treatment is okay, in this instance, because people gathering for religious purposes in homes somehow can’t be trusted to take the same precautions as people do in other places.”

The court order did draw disagreement from Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and a written dissent from Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

“California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households. If the State also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment,” Kagan said. “And the State does exactly that: It has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike.”

Kagan objected to claims that in-home religious gatherings should be treated “the same as hardware stores and hair salons.” She said “the law does not require that the State equally treat apples and watermelons.”

The court majority however, said comparable secular activities treated “more favorably than at-home religious exercise” under California rules included private suites at sporting events and concerts as well as indoor restaurant dining, where more than three households were allowed to gather.

“Where the government permits other activities to proceed with precautions, it must show that the religious exercise at issue is more dangerous than those activities even when the same precautions are applied,” the Supreme Court said.

Public health officials have said anti-coronavirus health precautions for gatherings include limited attendance capacity, physical distance between households, the use of face coverings or masks, and good hand hygiene. Good ventilation for indoor gatherings has also been stressed.

 


California’s limit on home religious gatherings too strict, US Supreme Court says

U.S. Supreme Court building / Steven Frame/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Apr 12, 2021 / 13:49 pm (CNA).

California’s coronavirus restrictions on home-based religious gatherings like Bible studies, worship and prayer meetings were more strict than the constitution allows, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a 5-4 court order late Friday.

Citing an appeals court decision in a different case, the unsigned majority’s court order said the state cannot “assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work.”

California had said its restrictions on social gatherings was “entirely neutral.” Its current coronavirus mitigation rules have limited indoor social gatherings to no more than three households, and attendees must wear masks and keep physical distance from each other.

These rules were challenged by Rev. Jeremy Wong and Karen Busch,  two residents of Santa Clara County, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They wanted to host small, in-person Bible studies in their homes, the Associated Press said. In the case known as Tandon v. Newsom, they objected that the limits interfered with their free exercise of religion.

“There is zero evidence that an indoor Bible study is riskier than a trip to the movies, dinner in a restaurant, a workout in a gym or a gathering with dozens of friends at a winery, brewery, distillery or bowling alley,” the plaintiffs said in their appeal to the Supreme Court, the New York Times reports.

The Supreme Court’s order critiqued the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, saying “instead of requiring the State to explain why it could not safely permit at-home worshipers to gather in larger numbers while using precautions used in secular activities, the Ninth Circuit erroneously declared that such measures might not ‘translate readily’ to the home.”

The order faulted the appellate court’s series of decisions on California rules.

“This is the fifth time the Court has summarily rejected the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of California’s COVID restrictions on religious exercise,” said the order. “It is unsurprising that such litigants are entitled to relief.”

“California’s Blueprint System contains myriad exceptions and accommodations for comparable activities, thus requiring the application of strict scrutiny,” the Supreme Court said. Under this standard, the state must pursue its interest through laws that are “narrowly tailored.”

David Cortman, senior counsel and vice president of U.S. litigation with the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group, welcomed the decision.

“With this fifth rejection of California’s COVID-19 restrictions on religious exercise, the Supreme Court has made abundantly clear that the government has a duty to respect the First Amendment in this context and many others,” Cortman said April 10.

“As the court explained, the government can’t single out religious activities for harsher treatment than non-religious ones,” he added. “The court also rejected the idea that such unfair treatment is okay, in this instance, because people gathering for religious purposes in homes somehow can’t be trusted to take the same precautions as people do in other places.”

The court order did draw disagreement from Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and a written dissent from Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

“California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households. If the State also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment,” Kagan said. “And the State does exactly that: It has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike.”

Kagan objected to claims that in-home religious gatherings should be treated “the same as hardware stores and hair salons.” She said “the law does not require that the State equally treat apples and watermelons.”

The court majority however, said comparable secular activities treated “more favorably than at-home religious exercise” under California rules included private suites at sporting events and concerts as well as indoor restaurant dining, where more than three households were allowed to gather.

“Where the government permits other activities to proceed with precautions, it must show that the religious exercise at issue is more dangerous than those activities even when the same precautions are applied,” the Supreme Court said.

Public health officials have said anti-coronavirus health precautions for gatherings include limited attendance capacity, physical distance between households, the use of face coverings or masks, and good hand hygiene. Good ventilation for indoor gatherings has also been stressed.