Some California churches on Saturday said they planned to reopen their doors this weekend after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the state’s ban on indoor worship services during the pandemic, ruling that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s strict orders appear to violate the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion.
Bishop Arthur Hodges, the senior pastor of South Bay United Pentecostal Church in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, called the ruling “a major victory.”
“We are thrilled and excited to go back to church without legal threat of fines or arrest,” Hodges said in a television interview broadcast on Fox 5. “And it opens up churches in the entire state of California. So this is a win for every church, every house of worship, and every individual of faith that wants to go to their house of worship this Sunday.”
He said the church would hold indoor services this weekend. It had previously offered online services but they were not an adequate substitute, he said, likening them to a virtual campfire or telehealth medicine.
“Online can only go so far,” he said. “It really doesn’t satisfy the person of faith who’s needing their church.”
South Bay United Pentecostal was one of two churches that challenged the state’s ban in separate lawsuits. The other, Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, said it would also hold indoor services Sunday.
“While we have come under fire from some community members, we stand firm that the fruit of meeting in person lies in the spiritual, emotional and physical healing that worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ has brought to so many throughout the world,” Ché Ahn, the church’s senior pastor, said in a statement.
He said the church decided to challenge the ban after it was singled out by “confusing California edicts” that give “first-rate essential preferences to abortion clinics, marijuana dispensaries, and liquor stores.”
“While it is one thing to lockdown based on data, it is an entirely different motive to allow some groups a right that is denied to others,” he said.
Gov. Newsom’s office said Saturday it will issue revised guidelines for indoor church services.
“We will continue to enforce the restrictions the Supreme Court left in place and, after reviewing the decision, we will issue revised guidelines for worship services to continue to protect the lives of Californians,” Daniel Lopez, Newsom’s press secretary, said in a statement.
The justices in a 6-3 decision granted an appeal late Friday evening from South Bay United, which has repeatedly challenged the state restrictions on church services, including its ban on singing and chanting. The ruling set aside decisions by federal judges in San Diego and San Bernardino, and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which upheld the state’s orders despite earlier warnings from the high court.
But the high court said the state may limit attendance at indoor services to 25% of the building’s capacity, and singing and chanting may be restricted as well.
California has enforced “the most extreme restriction on worship in the country,” the court was told by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. While several states set limits on attendance at church services, the group said, California is “the only state to ban indoor worship” in all but sparsely populated counties.
The six conservative justices in the majority differed among themselves, but they agreed California had singled out churches for unfair treatment.
“Since the arrival of COVID-19, California has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses.” wrote Justice Neil M. Gorsuch in one of three concurring opinions. “California worries that worship brings people together for too much time. Yet, California does not limit its citizens to running in and out of other establishments; no one is barred from lingering in shopping malls, salons, or bus terminals.”
Gorsuch along with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. voted to lift all the restrictions, including limits on attendance and singing.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett said she has not convinced the ban on singing should be lifted. The state argued that singing in a group indoors will spread the airborne virus, and Barrett said the churches had the burden of “establishing their entitlement to relief from the singing ban. In my view, they did not carry that burden — at least not on this record,” she wrote. Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh agreed with her.
In May, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. cast a key vote in a 5-4 decision to reject an early challenge to California’s restrictions on church services. He said then that he believed in deferring to state officials who were coping with the pandemic. But he wrote Friday that he could not accept California’s “present determination that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero. … Deference, though broad, has its limits.”