Supreme Court Deals Another Blow to Embattled Newsom

High Court rejects Democrat's church restrictions

California governor Gavin Newsom (D.) (Getty Images)
March 1, 2021

The effort to recall California governor Gavin Newsom got a boost from the Supreme Court, which struck down the Democrat's ban on indoor church services.

The decision, handed down Friday night, ruled in favor of several churches that had sought government protection from bans on in-person, indoor religious services instituted because of the coronavirus crisis. The decision cited the Supreme Court's previous ruling in favor of churches that established the High Court's position that religious services could not be treated differently than secular essential services. Kevin Faulconer, a former San Diego mayor and leading Republican gubernatorial candidate, said the Court has repeatedly defeated Newsom's attempts to restrict constitutionally protected actions.

"Gavin Newsom has put in place uneven and inconsistent COVID-19 restrictions on private entities that are not always supported by science," Faulconer said. "The Supreme Court has ruled that religious communities have been unfairly and unconstitutionally singled out by these unilateral orders. This should send a message to Newsom to stop infringing on the rights of people of faith."

Newsom did not return a request for comment.

The decision comes as Newsom faces a recall effort that emerged largely out of anger over his handling of the pandemic. The deadline for the recall push is approaching in mid-March, and with Newsom scrambling to change his approach and loosen restrictions on economic and social activity in the state in the midst of increasing criticism, the Court's decision could mark a turning point.

National Republican leaders have also criticized Newsom's handling of the crisis, as well as his targeting of churches. Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) said the ruling is a major blow against the Democrat's handling of the coronavirus crisis and criticized Newsom's hypocrisy.

"Gavin Newsom can get a reservation at the French Laundry but he can’t rewrite the First Amendment," Sasse said. "States that intentionally target religious liberty have been slapped down by the courts again and again. The message is clear: This pandemic doesn’t rewrite the Constitution."

The Court drew on its February decision in favor of South Bay Pentecostal Church, which had challenged Newsom's coronavirus restrictions on in-person indoor religious worship. The Court partially struck down the restrictions. It ruled that the state's outright ban on in-person indoor worship was unconstitutional, but the state's bans on singing and chanting were allowed to remain in place. The decision marked the latest in a long line of court rulings that religious worship cannot be treated more severely than other essential secular activities by government restrictions.

The Friday ruling specifically overturned restrictions instituted by Santa Clara County, which tried to institute a temporary ban on religious gatherings.

Newsom has dismissed the recall effort in the past; a spokesman described the recall effort as a "distraction and circus" in December 2020. The recall petition is nearing two million unverified signatures with weeks to go before the deadline to allow the recall to go forward. The petition requires approximately 1.5 million verified signatures to proceed.

Randy Economy, senior adviser for Recall Gavin Newsom 2020, said Newsom is facing accountability from both the courts and the people of California.

"Newsom has dictated his will over 45 million residents for the past two years and finally he is being held accountable," Economy said. "The people of California must never allow any politician to be the almighty authority over all of our lives, not now, not ever."

The recall petition must be submitted by March 17.