Supreme Court blocks county’s ban on indoor worship gatherings, calls 9th Circuit ruling 'erroneous'

A welcome sign sits at the base of the steps to the U.S. Supreme Court on December 16, 2019, in Washington, D.C. | Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court has blocked a California county’s ban on indoor worship services weeks after officials ordered places of worship to remain closed until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic even though the high court had weeks earlier lifted a statewide ban on religious gatherings.

The court ruled Friday in favor of five churches that Santa Clara County must allow indoor worship services to resume at 20% capacity. The order went as far as calling the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier ruling in favor of the county’s restrictions “erroneous.” 

The Supreme Court’s three liberal justices dissented. 

“This outcome is clearly dictated by this court’s decision in the South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom,” Friday’s Supreme Court order states.

In the South Bay case, the justices ruled that the state could cap indoor services at 25% of the building’s capacity and continue to ban singing and chanting.

In a concurring opinion of the South Bay case, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that he understands the state’s arguments that singing indoors poses a heightened risk of transmitting COVID-19 but doesn’t believe the state had scientific reasoning for wanting to ban in-person worship entirely when some churches are large and cavernous.

The county, however, believed that its ban was legal because it imposed the same large gathering restrictions on churches that it had on other secular business establishments.

Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams called the decision “disappointing” and said the court’s order was issued “without any analysis at all of the County’s gathering rules.” He claimed that the county’s rules “have always been neutral and applied equally to all gatherings across-the-board.” 

“Indoor gatherings of all kinds remain very risky, and we continue to urge all religious institutions to carefully follow the public health recommendations to avoid spread of COVID-19 among their congregations and the broader community,” Williams said in a statement

Williams added that the county is allowed to restrict the capacity of religious gatherings to 20% instead of the state’s 25% limit because that’s the limit it has imposed on all indoor businesses and facilities.

The county told the court Thursday in a letter that COVID-19 cases in the county had continued to decline and would soon likely lift its ban on indoor gatherings as early as March 3. 

The court’s decision on Friday was in response to an ongoing lawsuit that was filed by a group of five churches in the country against the county’s order. The five churches are Gateway City Church, The Spectrum Church, The Home Church, Orchard Community Church and Trinity Bible Church.

In November, Pastor Mike McClure of Calvary Chapel in Santa Clara said he was “called to preach the Gospel” even though he faced fines of at least $350,000 and a lawsuit for holding indoor services since May 31 in violation of Gov. Newsom’s restrictions on churches at the time.

Last November, the Supreme Court also issued a temporary injunction against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s controversial restrictions on indoor worship gatherings. Earlier this month, a federal court issued a permanent injunction against Cuomo’s restrictions. 

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