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On Worship, California Caves, While Canadian Province Clamps Down

On Worship, California Caves, While Canadian Province Clamps Down

North America’s “worship wars” over the COVID-19 pandemic just aren’t going away.

On April 9, the U.S. Supreme Court—for the fifth time—overturned specific California worship restrictions that had been affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in particular “coronavirus-related restrictions limiting home-based religious worship, including Bible studies and prayer meetings.” State officials have finally realized that they appear to be on the side of a losing battle and relented.

According to San Jose’s The Mercury News, “More than three households may gather at places like schools, grocery stores and churches, a discrepancy that served as the basis for the plaintiffs’ argument that at-home religious activities were being treated unfairly.”

In its majority opinion, the Court appeared to agree, stating, “Government regulations are not neutral and generally applicable, and therefore trigger strict scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause, whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise. … It is no answer that a State treats some comparable secular businesses or other activities as poorly as or even less favorably than the religious exercise at issue.”

Here is a list of what was treated “more favorably,” as compiled by the majority: “hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants.” All of these “bring together more than three households at a time.”

The Court split 5-4 in its decision. Associate Justice Elena Kagan, penning the dissent, targeting the faulty comparison the majority and plaintiffs made between gatherings in public places and gatherings in private homes. She cited scientific evidence that there was good reason to treat private homes on a more stringent basis than public businesses. She furthermore pointed out the “blanket restriction on” all of California’s in-home gatherings—not just religious ones. To the minority, this was not a case of religious discrimination. In Kagan’s words, “The law does not require that the State equally treat apples and watermelons.”

In contrast, one religious liberty expert, California attorney and president of Founders’ First Freedom Michael Peabody, shared this counsel: “This is the lesson of the Pandemic—it shows how easy it is for states to attempt to take away constitutional rights. If the Supreme Court ruled differently, it would have created a precedent that the state could significantly limit a key component of the Bill of Rights for any reason that could be remotely categorized as promoting ‘health and safety.’”

Canadian Province Clamps Down

While America’s highest court is coming down on the side of religious free exercise, provincial officials in Alberta, Canada, backed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, are clamping down on GraceLife Church.

According to CTV News, “Alberta Health Services said it ‘physically closed’ the building and will be preventing access to it until GraceLife ‘can demonstrate the ability to comply with Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health’s restrictions’ …. on capacity [limits], physical distancing, and masks.” GraceLife has been a notable thorn in the police’s side. Its pastor, James Coates, was even put in jail “for refusing to comply with the public health orders.” 

According to John Carpay of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, “The government has had 13 months to put together a scientific and medical basis to justify its violations of our fundamental Charter freedoms. ... For the government to shut down GraceLife Church as part of enforcing health orders, while also seeking to delay the Charter challenge to the validity of those very same orders, is unconscionable and completely undemocratic.”

Carpay’s statement refers to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, enacted in 1982 as part of the nation’s constitution. The Charter explicitly states that “everyone” in the nation has several “fundamental freedoms,” including the “freedom of conscience and religion; … [the] freedom of peaceful assembly; and … [the] freedom of association.”

However, the same document asserts such rights are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Apparently, the Alberta officials believe their limits are reasonable.

Worship Wars Ahead

If you believe you’ve read about similar matters here before, well, you’re right. It seems that every few weeks, the struggle over the right to worship is in the courts. Readers of The Sabbath Blog may well recognize that the increasing frequency of such events are not coincidental.

The law of the land is getting its fingers more and more entangled with the right to religious freedom. Today, it’s where we worship. Someday soon, it’s going to be when we worship.

Do you find that hard to believe? Learn how the Bible tells of this soon-coming future in “The Sabbath and the Mark of the Beast,” a FREE Bible lesson that walks you through the prophecies concerning the “worship wars” at the end of time.

Or maybe you’re not mussed over when to worship. What matters is that you get to worship, right? Our online FAQ “Can’t We Keep Holy Any Day of the Week?” can provide the answer.

While we can’t say that the current pandemic-related battles will exactly presage the future, Scripture says that the free exercise of religion will be the key issue for all humanity in the last days. Everyone will get caught up in this battle, whether they like it or not.

Do you know where victory can be found? It is found only through Jesus Christ, who has “set [you] free from sin, [that] you [may become] slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18). True freedom is found only in Christ.

This article contributed by Mark A. Kellner
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