• <p>Pews are seen in this illustration photo. (CNS photo by Tyler Orsburn)  </p>

    Pews are seen in this illustration photo. (CNS photo by Tyler Orsburn)

Supreme Court lifts ban on indoor worship in California county

Carol Zimmermann/Catholic News Service    |    03.02.2021


WASHINGTON (CNS) — A Supreme Court decision allowing indoor worship services in Santa Clara county, California, was praised by Bishop Oscar Cantú of the Diocese of San Jose, located in the county where the ban had been in effect.

“I join all Catholics and people of faith in Santa Clara County in expressing our satisfaction in tonight’s U.S. Supreme Court decision,” the bishop said in a Feb. 26 statement just after the court issued its brief order allowing the pandemic-related worship restrictions to be lifted while these limits are challenged in federal court.

The bishop’s statement pointed out that Santa Clara was the only county in the country with a ban on indoor worship.

“Banning indoor worship and yet allowing people to gather at airports, personal services establishments and retail shopping is unconstitutional — and the Supreme Court has said so several times,” he added.

The court’s 6-3 vote was in response to a lawsuit brought against Gov. Gavin Newsom, Santa Clara County and County Health Officer Sara Cody by a group of five county churches.

Bishop Cantú said he was grateful for the work of these churches and their “efforts to uphold our right to worship” in the county as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Effective immediately, he said, all parishes, missions and chapels in the Diocese of San Jose may resume indoor worship services up to 20% capacity, as long as each parish can do so following masking, social distancing and sanitization protocols.

“As we continue to protect the most vulnerable among us, the dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass is still in effect. Parishes will continue to offer outdoor and livestream Masses wherever possible for parishioners who are vulnerable to COVID-19 or hesitant about indoor worship,” he added.

He also urged the Catholic community to “move forward in hope, continuing all necessary safety precautions” and receiving the COVID-19 vaccine when they could. “Let us pray for all those suffering from the effects of the pandemic and its aftermath,” he added.

This all sounds somewhat familiar because on Feb. 5, the Supreme Court gave California churches the go-ahead to resume indoor worship services with a ban on singing and chanting and a limit of 25% capacity.

Santa Clara County officials said the county was not subject to the ruling because it already prohibited all indoor gatherings even at retail establishments where people could shop but not attend gatherings, like book readings. Similarly, county officials said people could go into houses of worship for individual prayer, but not join in gatherings with others.

After the county’s action, five Santa Clara County churches filed a motion in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to attempt to block the county’s ban, saying the Supreme Court’s ruling must apply to the entire state.

A U.S. district court judge granted an injunction to temporarily block the Santa Clara ban on indoor worship services, but less than two days later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit temporarily suspended that order, leaving in place the county’s ban on all indoor gatherings.

The churches filed their appeal with the Supreme Court Feb. 17 and pointed to the high court’s recent rulings on indoor worship where it lifted New York’s pandemic-related limits on attendance at worship services and where it allowed California churches to resume indoor worship services.

Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Santa Clara County was disappointing, reported The Mercury News, a San Jose daily newspaper.

In a statement, he said the high court’s order was issued “without any analysis at all of the county’s gathering rules, which 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.”

He also noted the county is still permitted to restrict the capacity of indoor worship services — at a 20% capacity, instead of the state’s 25% limit. The 20% limit is what the county is currently imposing on retail and grocery stores and other indoor businesses, Williams said.

In its brief order on Santa Clara worship services, the Supreme Court did not provide reasons for siding with the churches but said the decision was “clearly dictated” by its previous decision on California’s indoor worship.

According to Becket, a religious liberty law firm, 33 states have no restrictions on in-person worship and 17 have a percentage limit — most at 50% capacity, but Louisiana has a 75% capacity cap and Maine’s limit is 13% capacity. Only the District of Columbia has a numerical cap, which is 250 people.

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim

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