CNA Staff, Jan 25, 2021 / 02:01 pm (CNA).- An appeals court last week ruled for a second time against a California church which challenged the state’s rules barring in-person worship services for much of the state, deciding that a total ban on indoor worship services in most areas of the state is justified to block the spread of coronavirus.
The same court ruled Jan. 25 to prevent the state from enforcing fixed numerical attendance limits in areas where indoor worship is allowed, in favor of limits based on percentage of the house of worship’s capacity.
South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista had brought a legal challenge on First Amendment grounds against California’s COVID-19 restrictions, which currently prohibit indoor worship in most areas, while allowing unlimited attendance at outdoor services.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Jan. 22 ruled against the church, affirming a district court’s previous ruling and concluding that “California’s restrictions on indoor worship are narrowly tailored to meet its compelling—and immediate—state interest in stopping the community spread of the deadly coronavirus.”
Under current California rules, indoor worship services are banned in all “purple-tiered” counties; counties deemed to have “widespread” transmission risk based on the number of cases per 100,000 and the average positivity rate.
All but four of the state’s counties are currently classified in the purple tier, and as of Jan. 19, the “purple” tier covered 99.9% of California’s population.
California is the only state in the country with an indoor worship services ban. In the second-highest tier, red, indoor services are allowed but only with 25% capacity or— until the 9th Circuit’s Monday ruling— 100 people, whichever is fewer.
In the 9th Circuit’s Monday ruling, the court wrote in a case brought by Harvest Rock Church that in light of the South Bay decision, the court would not strike down the total ban on indoor worship, but would enjoin the state from enforcing its numerical restrictions in lower tiers.
Instead, the state may only enforce the attendance limitations based on the percentage of total capacity, the court said.
Harvest Rock had alleged that Governor Gavin Newsom applied a double-standard during the nine months of the pandemic, curbing religious services while allowing comparable non-religious gatherings and mass protests to continue “without numerical restriction.”
The Supreme Court had in December 2020 vacated the district court ruling against South Bay and sent the case back to the circuit court for consideration in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in a November case brought by the Diocese of Brooklyn.
New York state in October had limited indoor religious gatherings in certain areas to only 10 people, with other areas limited to 25 people, due to the spread of the virus in those areas, while allowing other venues to open and operate under far less restrictions.
The federal Second Circuit court ordered that the 10 and 25-person caps to worship had to be suspended while the case is pending.
In another recent and influential case, the Supreme Court in December 2020 vacated a district court decision, granting a church’s requested injunction on the state’s order that limited indoor worship to 50 people in certain areas where the virus was spreading. The court then sent the case back to the lower courts for reconsideration in light of the Brooklyn diocese case.