- The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Republican politician Ritesh Tandon, winemaker Dhruv Khanna of Kirigin Cellars and nine others, claimed that their rights to livelihood and freedom of speech had been hampered by his restrictive COVID policies.
On April 9, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of two Indian Americans who had sued California Governor Gavin Newsom, saying their rights to livelihood and freedom of speech had been hampered by his restrictive COVID policies, which have limited indoor gatherings. The ruling is being recognized as yet another victory for religious conservatives in America.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Republican politician Ritesh Tandon, who launched a challenge to incumbent Congressman Ro Khanna, a Democrat, in California’s 17th district and was trounced; and winemaker Dhruv Khanna of Kirigin Cellars. Nine other plaintiffs in the lawsuit claimed Newsom’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” — established in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — had impinged on their right to worship at home or had created severe economic hardship to their business.
In Tandon v. Newsom, it was stated that California’s limitations on religious gatherings in homes likely violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The Court therefore enjoined enforcement of the limitations pending appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
In response to COVID-19, California imposed restrictions on indoor gatherings. Those restrictions were subsequently challenged by a group of plaintiffs seeking to hold private religious gatherings both indoors and outdoors at their homes. The plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction to prohibit enforcement of the restrictions, but the motion was denied by a district court. The plaintiffs then appealed to the Ninth Circuit and moved for an injunction pending appeal. The Ninth Court denied that motion. The Supreme Court then stepped into the fray April 9, holding that California’s COVID limitations on religious gatherings in homes likely violates the “Free Exercise Clause” of the First Amendment.California limits gatherings in people’s homes to members of just three households. This blanket rule applies to any person or people gathering in a home for any reason, including religious ones.
The Center for American Liberty, founded by Indian American attorney Harmeet Dhillon, partnered with the law firm Eimer Stahl to file the lawsuit. In it, Tandon claimed that he wanted to host outdoor gatherings of more than 60 persons to share his message about why was running for Congress and how best to represent CD 17. “Before Governor Newsom issued the first safer-at-home order, Tandon had generated significant support by way of traditional campaigning, such as fundraising events at the homes of friends, via invitations to concerts and speaker events, meet-the-candidate events and other gatherings, policy discussions, debates, and more. All these activities ground to a halt when the Defendants released the Orders,” read the lawsuit.
Khanna, of Kirigin Cellars, one of the oldest wineries in California, noted in the lawsuit that he has 10 acres of land to host outdoor events. Though Kirigin Cellars makes and sells small batch wines, the majority of the company’s income is derived from events, including youth soccer games, weddings, and corporate events. The state allowed outdoor weddings, religious services, cultural ceremonies, and protests, but with a maximum of 60 people. As a result, Khanna claimed, 30 planned events were canceled and Kirigin has had to cut payroll by 30 percent. The Court concluded that the plaintiff’s challenge was likely to succeed.
What has been made clear, and not just in California, is that these COVID restrictions seem to favor some gatherings over others. For instance, places such as “Big Box” stores and movie theaters welcome more people into a confined area than a household prayer gathering. The Supreme Court also observed that the lower courts could not prove that a retail store environment poses a lower risk of COVID transmission than a house prayer group.
Five other lawsuits, challenging the restriction on prayer services, have also been heard by the Supreme Court.