Following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling late Friday, California issued new guidelines for indoor church services, and many congregations immediately resumed in-person worship. The high court ruled 6-3 in favor of religious rights, granting the emergency request of two churches that have been fighting pandemic-related restrictions set by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
SCOTUS didn’t overrule all of California’s limitations, however. Justices said the state still can cap attendance at 25% of a building’s capacity and ban singing and chanting to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “We will continue to enforce the restrictions the Supreme Court left in place,” says the governor’s press secretary.
What SCOTUS Said
Friday’s ruling from the realigned Supreme Court follows recent favorable rulings for churches in New York and elsewhere. Chief Justice John Roberts, who voted with the majority, wrote, “[California] has concluded…that singing indoors poses a heightened risk of transmitting COVID–19. I see no basis in this record for overriding that aspect of the state public health framework. At the same time, the State’s present determination—that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero—appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.”
In her first signed opinion since joining the court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, along with Justice Brett Kavanaugh, wrote that churches must prove they deserve relief from the singing ban. It’s unclear, she added, whether California is enforcing that “across the board.” Churches argue that TV singing competitions are being filmed during the pandemic.
Churches Declare Victory
The two Southern California churches that sought relief celebrated Friday’s ruling as a victory for religious freedom. “You can go to your house of worship, as of now!” says Bishop Arthur Hodges, senior pastor of South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista. “We are thrilled and excited to go back to church, without legal threat of fines or arrest.” Though the attendance limit will require Hodges to add more services, the ruling “at least allows us some wiggle room to operate,” he says.
Ché Ahn, senior pastor of Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, has criticized California’s “draconian” worship restrictions and encouraged church members to sign a recall petition against Newsom. Ahn argues that California is giving “first-rate essential preferences to abortion clinics, marijuana dispensaries, and liquor stores.” Harvest’s 160 congregations won’t adhere to the singing ban, the pastor adds. “Fifty percent of worship is singing,” says Ahn. “We’re going to sing no matter what.”
Not all churches will reopen, however. Dean Malcolm Clemens Young of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral says SCOTUS was “not doing anyone a favor” by lifting the indoor-worship ban. “We’re trying to follow the science, and we’re trying to be patient,” he says. “Although I would love to see everyone in person, I cannot believe that offering a worship service for 500 people (that’s 25% of Grace Cathedral building capacity) makes any sense right now.”
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, America’s largest Catholic archdiocese, expressed gratitude for the ruling but urged caution, advising parishes that choose to reopen to follow the room-capacity and no-singing rules.