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Washington State eases restriction on in-person church services, singing

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee |

Washington State announced that it is lifting a restriction on the number of people who can attend services at houses of worship, the change coming shortly before Christmas.

Previously, Washington had a limit on indoor and outdoor services of 25% capacity or up to 200 people in attendance, whichever was less, as well as a restriction on singing.

In the new guidance, announced Monday, the 200-person limit became a recommendation rather than a requirement, though face masks and social distancing are still required.

The singing rule, first introduced on Dec. 10, was clarified to allow for solo singers as long as they wear face masks; congregational singing will be allowed only for outdoor services.

Washington explained that the reason for the loosening of restrictions came because of decisions from the United States Supreme Court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Washington referenced Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, in which a three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit blocked Nevada’s 50-person worship attendance restriction.

The state also cited Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, in which the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to block New York State’s restrictions on in-person worship services.

In the announcement, the state said Governor Jay Inslee believed that while the attendance limit was no longer mandatory, it was still recommended for public health reasons.

“Because the Governor believes the attendance cap will help save lives, he is converting the required 200-person cap to a recommended cap. The Governor recognizes and respects that it is the role of the courts to say what the law is,” they explained.

“The Governor does not intend to re-impose mandatory numerical caps specific to religious services unless the Ninth Circuit or the Supreme Court clarifies the state of the law.”

As states take measures to limit gatherings in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus, much litigation has resulted over the extent to which religious meetings can be restricted.

Recently, some states have found their limits on in-person worship blocked by the courts, with the prevailing opinion being that they wrongfully treated religious bodies worse than secular entities.

Last week, the Supreme Court issued orders vacating lower court decisions made against churches suing Colorado and New Jersey over their restrictions on worship gatherings.

The Thomas More Society, a conservative law firm that represented the priest and the rabbi at the center of the New Jersey case, celebrated the Supreme Court order.

“We are getting a very clear message from the United States Supreme Court that government cannot set up any rules that apply to places of worship, or worship activities, but not to other, comparable secular activities,” stated Thomas More Society Special Counsel Christopher Ferrara.

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