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The Tandon V. Newsom Lawsuit: Negotiating Religious Gatherings During a Pandemic

On April 9, The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ritesh Tandon et. al., plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the restrictions imposed by Governor Gavin Newsom on the people of California during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. One of these restrictions, detailed under the “Blueprint for a Safer Economy,” implemented on August 30, 2020—based on a tiered evaluation of the number of positive COVID-19 test cases, ICU capacity, and a health equity metric—imposed limitations on religious gatherings at homes to three households at most.

The Tandon v. Newsom lawsuit stated that these restrictions violated the freedom to practice religion and increased economic hardship faced by some businesses. 

Indian American attorney and Republican party official, Harmeet Dhillon, partnered with the law firm Eimer Stahl to file the lawsuit on behalf of Ritesh Tandon, a Republican who lost to incumbent Democrat Ro Khanna in the last general election for U.S. House California District 17 on November 3, 2020 (28.7% to 71.3%). Dhruv Khanna, a winemaker at Kirigin Cellars, as well as nine others were parties to the lawsuit.

The Court’s Opinion on Removing California’s In-Home Religious Gathering Restrictions

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court stated that government regulations “trigger strict scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause.” The court’s opinion was that some activities, like frequenting a hair salon or shopping at a hardware store, were treated more favorably than at-home religious ceremonies since there were no restrictions on the number of households allowed to congregate at any given moment at these places of business. The Court noted that by custom-fitting the restrictions, the state opened itself up for stricter scrutiny. 

In the Court’s opinion, the government did not make a convincing case that in-home religious gatherings were more dangerous than other allowable activities, like shopping in a grocery store.

The Dissenting Opinions

Chief Justice John Roberts dissented with the Court’s stance, and Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Kagan wrote that “If the State also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment. And the State does exactly that: It has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike.” 

When comparing customers frequenting a hair salon or hardware store to in-home religious gatherings, Justice Kagan in agreement with the lower appellate court found that “when people gather in social settings, their interactions are likely to be longer than they would be in a commercial setting,” with participants “more likely to be involved in prolonged conversations.” And “private houses are typically smaller and less ventilated than commercial establishments,” with social distancing and mask-wearing more difficult to enforce. 

Justice Kagan summarized the Supreme Court’s decision as a command to California to ignore its experts’ scientific findings, thus impairing the State’s ability to respond to an emergency.

California’s restrictions are likely what got us Californians through the toughest period of the pandemic. Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, in an interview with KQED, agreed with the governor’s strict regulations stating that it would be dangerous to have a surge that could deplete the supply of necessary health care resources. “And because of the stress on the health care system, I think what the governor did was both prudent and advisable.”

Lessons from India

A glance at India, at this moment, gives credibility to Fauci’s remark. India did not impose restrictions on religious gatherings, indoor or outdoor. Indeed, as the second wave of infections began to rear its head in April, millions gathered in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, for the Maha Kumbh Mela, and then boarded buses to return to their hometowns. Experts concede that this religious gathering, as well as mass political rallies, caused the pandemic to proliferate unchecked. 

Ads placed by Tirath Singh Rawat (Image from Caravan)

Knowing that an activity will endanger the public and yet choosing to pursue that said activity is morally reprehensible. The chief minister of Uttarakhand, Tirath Singh Rawat, ran front-page advertisements in newspapers across India, persuading Hindu devotees to attend the festival. And Rawat’s rejoinder, amid concerns that the festival could turn into a super-spreader event, was to remark that “faith in God will overcome fear of the virus.”

Would hindsight knowledge of India’s outbreak have altered the course of lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions in California? It’s not exactly clear. 

Lawsuits Galore

According to Ben Christopher of CalMatters, since mid-January 2021, there were 64 lawsuits filed against the state of California, and Governor Gavin Newsom in particular. From gondoliers, manicurists, barbers to a saxophonist, and even “a disappointed bride-to-be,” many have found reason to claim hardship due to the state’s stringent regulations. 

The representing plaintiff in many of these lawsuits is Harmeet Dhillon, who, according to Christopher, remarked that “We do not shut down our highways because people die in car accidents.” However, as Christopher pointed out, a contagion can hardly be compared to an accident. One has a high risk of spread, while the other does not.

These lawsuits are stress-testing government procedures during an unprecedented crisis. While, certainly, the restrictions did impose hardships on small business owners and essential workers, there is strong evidence to suggest that it saved the lives of many. 

Religious worship aside, even the consideration of economic hardship is a balancing act during a health pandemic. Since March 2020, government leaders have had to balance the loss of jobs against the loss of lives. Both cause extreme distress. Yet, in only one case is there the possibility for future earnings. 

Religious Precept

Especially during a crisis, religion is necessary, but at what cost? Robert Jones, Founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, articulated it best in an article published by U.S. News and World Report: “For most religious traditions, the idea of self-sacrifice in service to the community and common good are core theological principles. These temporary measures [government restrictions] are consistent with those beliefs.” 

The Tandon v. Newsom lawsuit, in arguing for the right to hold in-home religious gatherings, muddles the very purpose of a faith and belief system that places religion above human lives, politics above protection, and profit margins over safety.


Jaya Padmanabhan is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of India Currents. 

Featured Image sources – 

Governor Gavin Newsom: Wikimedia Commons by Gage Skidmore

Ritesh Tandon: tandonforcongress.com