Some California churches reopen after Supreme Court lifts ban on indoor services
Some California churches reopened their doors for services Sunday after the Supreme Court ruled last week that the state’s orders prohibiting indoor services during the pandemic appeared to violate the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion.
“This is not just our 1st Amendment rights, it’s really our biblical mandate not to forsake assembling with the saints,” Ché Ahn, senior pastor of Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, told congregants during Sunday services.
The state’s ban on indoor services was challenged in separate lawsuits by Harvest Rock Church and the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, and Friday’s order applied directly to them. But its legal logic would block enforcement of a similar ban at other churches.
Bishop Arthur Hodges, senior pastor at South Bay United Pentecostal Church, said he was “declaring a great victory.” The church had continued to hold indoor services despite the state’s rule, but Sunday was the first time in months that it was able to do so legally.
“This is a giant step forward in affirming that Americans should never be forced to have to choose between obeying God or their government,” Hodges said during Sunday’s service.
Other churches were still working out what the Supreme Court ruling meant for them.
On Saturday, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles issued a statement giving parishes the option of returning to indoor worship services that “limit attendance to 25% capacity.” Until now, services have been held in accordance with county and state requirements.
But because the archdiocese includes Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties — and each county has issued its own restrictions on public gatherings — parishes have developed their own accommodations that meet the needs of their congregants.
In Los Angeles County, for instance, the Department of Public Health released a revised order in late December that allowed indoor worship services as long as masking and physical distancing protocols were followed. (The state’s lawyers told the Supreme Court that despite the move, the county did not have the authority to waive the state’s rules.)
The archdiocese is still reviewing the court’s ruling, but spokeswoman Adrian Marquez Alarcon said Sunday that most churches have continued to conduct outdoor services where capacity is less limited.
“Outside there is more space for social distancing,” she said. “Pastors are taking into consideration what their communities of faith need and what they feel comfortable with.”
Father Ricardo Viveros of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Atwater Village has been holding both indoor and outdoor Mass since the end of December when the county eased its restrictions.
“I’m something of a hybrid, and I want people to be comfortable,” he said. “But more are wanting to go back inside and are feeling more comfortable about that.”
With social distancing, his church can accommodate 90 congregants inside, and if more show up, they stand in the front courtyard. The priests and deacons step outside to deliver Communion.
In the court’s ruling Friday, the six conservative justices in the majority agreed that California had singled out churches for unfair treatment by putting more stringent restrictions on them than on some businesses.
The justices granted an appeal 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 a building’s capacity, and singing and chanting may be restricted as well.
San Bernardino and Ventura counties both said they would follow state guidelines and permit indoor church services at limited capacity. Orange County did not respond to a request for comment.
L.A. County said that even though it allows indoor church services, it encourages houses of worship to continue to hold them outdoors or virtually.
“The required modifications, including capacity limits specified by the state and the requirement that people wear masks and be physically distant at a service, will help to reduce the risk for COVID-19 transmission, but do not eliminate it,” the county Department of Public Health said Sunday in a statement.
In the Bay Area, Santa Clara County officials said indoor services would continue to be prohibited there because their local health orders have a different framework than the state’s.
The county has averaged 164 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents over the last week, according to The Times’ coronavirus tracker, a little more than half of L.A. County’s rate of 319 cases per 100,000 residents.
“Santa Clara County, unlike the state, has never had rules specific to places of worship and has never closed places of worship,” County Counsel James Williams said Sunday. “Instead, we have across-the-board uniform rules that apply to gatherings of all types.”
All counties have the discretion to impose more stringent restrictions than the state, the California Department of Public Health confirmed Sunday. In Santa Clara County’s case, its separate restriction on gatherings was upheld in two other court decisions on grounds that were not presented to the Supreme Court and are not affected by its ruling, the department said.
The state issues coronavirus safety guidelines by industry, with places of worship and cultural ceremonies comprising their own industry. Until the Supreme Court ruling, the state’s guidelines limited that particular industry to outdoor operations in counties in the most restrictive, purple tier of the state’s four-phase reopening plan. All but four of the state’s 58 counties are in the purple tier.
The state permits some other industries, such as retail, shopping malls and personal care services, to operate indoors with modifications in purple-tier counties. Some conservative justices noted the disparity in their opinions.
But rather than regulate businesses by industry, Santa Clara County regulates activities based on the level of risk associated with them, Williams said. The county permits all establishments, including places of worship, to be open at 20% capacity for certain types of activities, he said. And it has prohibited all gatherings, defined as people coming together in a coordinated fashion for an event, regardless of its type or purpose, since moving into the purple tier in November.
“Our concern related to gatherings is not based on where you happen to be gathering or why you happen to be gathering,” Williams said. “It has to do with the fact that gathering indoors is a very high-risk activity, whether that’s a gathering that occurs in a place of worship or occurs in a community center or in a retail environment.”
Calvary Chapel in San Jose held church services Sunday despite the county’s announcement, as it has for much of the pandemic.
“What we’re doing here isn’t so much as fighting against our county but we’re simply standing up for the right that God has given to us,” Senior Pastor Mike McClure told congregants.
He framed the dispute over public health guidelines as a battle between the church and Satan, with holiness on one side and idolatry on the other.
“The state is trying to replace the church and to create this fear so that we give up our liberty and we give it up to trust in them,” he said.
Santa Clara County filed legal action against the church and McClure in November, claiming they had been hosting weekly indoor services for as many as 600 people while disregarding public health rules such as masking and distancing. Although the county won a preliminary injunction, the church continues to violate it, Williams said.
He said the church and McClure have twice been held in contempt of court and have accrued around $2 million in fines — about $5,000 per violation per day. He does not expect the Supreme Court ruling to have any effect on the ongoing case.
“Most of their violations are about a lot more than just gathering indoors, although that is one of the issues,” Williams said. “We’re talking about no face masking, no social distancing protocols, singing — they’re violating basically every single one of the basic safety protocols that we have in place.”
By contrast, Williams said, most of the county’s houses of worship are following the rules by holding outdoor or virtual services.
“The vast, vast majority of faith institutions in our community, they care a lot,” he said. “They care about their congregants. They care about the community’s safety and well-being and take COVID very seriously and understand that we’re in a critical moment.”
Times staff writer David G. Savage contributed to this report.
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