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Supreme Court Lets California Churches Hold Indoor Services (1)

Feb. 6, 2021, 5:27 AM

A divided U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to let indoor worship services resume at a group of suing churches, easing restrictions that officials said were needed to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The Friday night orders stopped short of abolishing the Covid restrictions altogether, saying the state could impose a 25% capacity cap at church services. The justices also let California continue to ban singing and chanting at indoor services.

Still, the orders marked a new display of the eagerness of the court’s conservative wing to protect religious rights even when officials say public health is at stake. The orders reinforce an earlier Supreme Court decision that blocked strict capacity limits in New York as violating constitutionally protected religious rights.

The newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, joined her conservative colleagues in the majority, though she didn’t go as far as some of them wanted. Issuing her first separate opinion, Barrett said the churches hadn’t carried their burden to show the ban on singing and chanting was discriminatory.

“Of course, if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral,” Barrett wrote in a one-paragraph opinion joined by Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “But the record is uncertain, and the decisions below unfortunately shed little light on the issue.”

Under restrictions imposed in July by Governor Gavin Newsom, California barred indoor worship services -- as well as indoor dining, movie screenings and other gatherings -- in counties designated as “tier 1” because of high Covid numbers. All but four of California’s 58 counties, covering more than 99% of its population, were “tier 1” as of Feb. 2.

Like most of the country, California has been fighting a surge of Covid cases over the past three months. The state has recorded more than 3.2 million cases since the outbreak began almost a year ago, and more than 40,000 people have died.

‘Not Scientists’

The court’s three liberal justices -- Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor -- dissented.

“Justices of this court are not scientists,” Kagan wrote for the group. “Nor do we know much about public health policy. Yet today the court displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging pandemic.”

Justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito said they would have blocked all the restrictions, though Alito said he would have given the state 30 days to show the rules met a demanding legal standard.

Writing for the group, Gorsuch said California had granted exemptions to Hollywood studios from Covid restrictions that apply elsewhere.

“If Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry,” Gorsuch wrote.

The court as a whole didn’t explain its reasoning or lay out why it selected 25% as a permissible capacity cap for churches in tier 1 counties. In his opinion, Gorsuch said the state allows most retail stores to operate at 25% occupancy in tier 1 counties.

Though other churches might be able to take advantage of the orders, they apply directly only to the churches that sued -- South Bay United Pentecostal Church, which has a 600-seat sanctuary in Chula Vista; Harvest Rock Church, which seats 1,250 people in its Pasadena facility; and Harvest International Ministry, which says it has numerous member churches throughout the state.

The cases are South Bay v. Newsom, 20A136, and Harvest Rock v. Newsom, 20A137.

(Updates with breakdown of court and excerpts from opinions starting in fourth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story:
Greg Stohr in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Jon Morgan at

Elizabeth Wasserman, John Harney

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