California lifts 'mandatory' COVID-19 capacity limits for churches

Demonstrators holding signs demanding their church to reopen, protest during a rally to re-open California and against extending Stay-At-Home directives on May 1, 2020, in San Diego, California.
Demonstrators holding signs demanding their church to reopen, protest during a rally to re-open California and against extending Stay-At-Home directives on May 1, 2020, in San Diego, California. | Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images

California will no longer require houses of worship to adhere to capacity limits, changing its COVID-19 gathering policies after multiple Supreme Court rulings have gone against the state.

In an update made Monday to the state’s COVID-19 website, under the category of “Places of worship and cultural ceremonies,” California’s Department of Public Health changed the language on capacity limits from “mandatory” to “strongly recommended.”

“In response to recent judicial rulings, effective immediately, location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory but are strongly recommended,” the website explains. “The linked guidance is in the process of being updated. All other restrictions in the guidance remain in place.”

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The listed standards vary on a tier system based on county infection rates. For the strictest category, known as “widespread” or “purple,” indoor worship is “strongly discouraged and should be limited to 25% of capacity.”

For the lowest tier of concern, known as “minimal” or “yellow,” indoor worship and other activities are recommended with a 50% capacity.

Also, singing and other musical activities involving voices “are permitted subject to the restrictions” listed in each tier category of infection.

For example, the purple tier says singers “must wear face coverings at all times” when indoors, be no more than 10 in number and “maintain at least 12 [feet] of physical distance from other performers and 24 feet of physical distance from visitors or congregants.”

After the conservative legal nonprofit Liberty Counsel filed a request for an emergency injunction on behalf of Harvest Rock Church and Harvest Rock International Ministry, the government assured Monday that “mandatory limits on attendance are no longer imposed on houses of worship.”

“After five reprimands from the U.S. Supreme Court, Governor Gavin Newsom has finally dropped his draconian restrictions on churches,” Liberty Counsel head Mat Staver said in a statement.  

“While we are happy that all churches and houses of worship no longer have any restrictions, Liberty Counsel will continue our case in the Ninth Circuit in order to make sure this tyranny and abuse never happens again.”

The Center for American Liberty, a law firm that filed multiple lawsuits against California over the various worship restrictions, celebrated the update.

Center founder and CEO Harmeet K. Dhillon said that she believes Newsom “should have done this a long time ago” in a statement to The Daily Wire.

“For over a year, the state of California has targeted the faith community for discriminatory treatment depriving them of their fundamental right to worship,” stated Dhillon.  

“It shouldn’t take a decision from the Supreme Court, much less five decisions, for Gov. Newsom to realize that what he has been doing is unconstitutional.”

California has been the subject of much litigation filed by several churches and other religious groups over its gathering restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Last Friday, in Tandon v. Newsom, the Supreme Court issued a per curiam decision granting injunctive relief to Rev. Jeremy Wong and other plaintiffs. They sought to hold in-home worship events attended by more than three households.

“… government regulations are not neutral and generally applicable, and therefore trigger strict scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause, whenever they treat any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise,” stated the court’s decision.

“It is unsurprising that such litigants are entitled to relief. California’s Blueprint System contains myriad exceptions and accommodations for comparable activities, thus requiring the application of strict scrutiny.”

Justice Elena Kagan authored a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. She insisted that the state already treated religious and secular entities equally.

“California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households. If the State also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment,” wrote Kagan.

“And the State does exactly that: It has adopted a blanket restriction on at home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike. California need not, as the per curiam insists, treat at-home religious gatherings the same as hardware stores and hair salons.”

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