The United States Supreme Court has struck down the State of California’s ban on indoor religious gatherings in houses of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the restrictions violated the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion.
The court issued its ruling Friday night, paving the way for churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship to allow congregants to return within the walls of their worship spaces for prayer. The state has been operating on a tier system, with tier 1 being counties with the worst infection rates. It is in those counties where indoor worship is banned, but since the state has been hit hard by the pandemic, that restriction has affected almost the entire state. Religious activities in open-air spaces, however, has been permitted.
The high court’s ruling is allowing the state to cap attendance at indoor services at 25% of the building’s capacity, however.
The ruling comes in response to two churches that sued California Gov. Gavin Newsom, South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry, which has more than 160 churches across the state.
San Francisco Roman Catholic Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, who had already given pastors permission at Christmas to allow worshipers indoors again, welcomed the ruling.
“This is a very significant step forward for basic rights. This decision makes clear we can now return to worshiping safely indoors without risk of harassment from government officials,” Archbishop Cordileone said in a statement Saturday.
He said that he had given pastors permission to bring congregations indoors under the same conditions permitted indoor retail, if the weather or safety conditions required it, because being an assembly of people coming together to worship God “is our identity” as a Church. “It is in our very nature to gather in person to give honor and glory to God,” he said. “And especially as Catholics we know that our worship cannot be livestreamed: there is no way to give Communion, or any of the other sacraments via the internet.”
In the ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that California’s 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.”
Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Bryer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the ruling, saying they would have upheld California’s restrictions. Kagan wrote that the court’s action “risks worsening the pandemic.” She said that the court was “making a special exception for worship services” rather than treating them like other activities where large groups of people come together “in close proximity for extended periods of time.”
“The state is desperately trying to slow the spread of a deadly disease,” Kagan wrote. “It has concluded, based on essentially undisputed epidemiological findings, that congregating together indoors poses a special threat of contagion. So it has devised regulations to curb attendance at those assemblies and — in the worst times — to force them outdoors.”
Archbishop Cordileone demurred. “I trust and hope our state officials will appreciate the care we’ve taken all throughout this crisis to protect the public health with masks, social distancing and other reasonable measures,” he stated.