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U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Lifts Ban on Indoor Services, California Houses of Worship Mixed on Re-Gathering

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Lifts Ban
The Supreme Court at sundown in Washington on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The Banner has a subscription with the Associated Press to republish religion and faith content from AP, RNS, and The Conversation. This story, first published by Religion News Service on Feb. 12, includes material from a second RNS story published Feb. 15 and includes details about Christian Reformed Churches in California, added by News Editor Alissa Vernon.

As much as the Rev. Austin Doran would like for his parish to meet indoors, at this time, it’s just not feasible, he said.

“We’re really excited about the prospect of bringing our services back inside. We miss our physical home, but there isn’t the confidence within the community or in my heart to bring us in there right now,” said Doran, pastor at St. Anthony Catholic Church in the city of San Gabriel in Los Angeles County.

Since California changed its guidelines for houses of worship following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Feb. 5 that lifted a ban on indoor services, some religious leaders have opened their churches, mosques, and temples to worshippers, but many others are choosing to continue congregating outdoors and online. The ruling limits attendance to 25% of a building’s capacity and restricts singing and chanting inside.

In the ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “federal courts owe significant deference to politically accountable officials” when it comes to public health restrictions, but he said deference “has its limits.”

Meanwhile, Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent for herself, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor that the court was “making a special exception for worship services” instead of treating them like other activities where large groups come together “in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

Before the decision, indoor worship services in California were forbidden in purple-tiered counties—those considered to be at widespread risk of coronavirus transmission. This tier accounts for a majority of the state. California churches were allowed to reopen in late May with attendance limitations but, along with other businesses, were once again shuttered in much of the state in July as COVID-19 cases surged.

St. Anthony’s continues to have a presence online and hosts seven outdoor services on weekends, with about 450 people attending Saturday and Sunday.

At Water of Life Community Church, a megachurch in the city of Fontana in San Bernardino County, the Supreme Court ruling won’t impact its worship services since the congregation has been meeting indoors since October even though the state had forbidden it.

Currently, about 800 worshippers congregate inside the Water of Life sanctuary, which can seat about 3,200 people. Virtual and outdoor worship services are also available. Masks are mandated for indoor and outdoor services.

Water of Life Community Church pastor Dan Carroll feels it’s safe for congregants to sing inside because they wear masks. The church singers and pastors on stage do so without masks since the platform is about 45 feet away from people, he said. They also keep their distance from each other.

The non-denominational church, which has a staff of about 300 people, has seen about 30-45 of its staff members infected with the virus, but Carroll said, “we don’t know of any person that has gotten sick at our worship services.” Carroll said the church has paid for a COVID-19 testing trailer once a week to have its staff voluntarily tested when coronavirus cases are particularly high in the area. In early December, an associate pastor at the church died after he was diagnosed with COVID-19. The church said he got sick while he was on vacation out of state.

“We just try to be safe,” Carroll said.

Carroll said the church has also had small groups of masked congregants meet in backyards or inside large buildings while wearing masks. Church staff inside the campus are also asked to wear masks at all times, unless they are alone in their offices.

“We’re trying to just keep moving forward and keep opening up every opportunity we have,” Carroll said.

For Rabbi Jason Rosner, of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, they’ll continue to exclusively meet online like they have since the beginning of the pandemic.

“The pandemic is still going on; not everyone is vaccinated,” he said. “We have people with various positions about the vaccine, and we have a lot of people with pre-existing conditions. We’re not in a position to do this safely until everyone is vaccinated.”

The Christian Reformed Church has four classes (regional groups of churches) in California. The Banner reached out to a few pastors and heard a range of responses in their congregations. One pastor spoke of his council's vote to return to indoor worship following the Supreme Court decision, mentioning that his church's perspective has been to take into account "the variety of ways God calls us to show our thankfulness to him—by worshiping him as he requires, especially in the second and fourth commandments, by honoring and submitting to those he, in his sovereignty, has put in authority over us, as in the fifth commandment, and by valuing human life and working to protect our neighbors, as in the sixth commandment." Another pastor referenced 1 Corinthians 6:12, that not everything one is permitted to do is beneficial, and said his congregation was continuing to exclusively meet online. A third pastor noted his congregation is meeting outdoors with online streaming, saying to "worship inside without singing is like being allowed to go into Applebee's but not allowed to eat."

California is now considering legislation, introduced Feb. 12 by Sen. Brian Jones, a Republican in San Diego County, that would deem religious services an essential activity during any declared state of emergency.

The bill, known as the Religion is Essential Act, would require state and local governments to allow religious services to continue during an emergency.

It would prohibit government institutions from enforcing a health, safety, or occupancy requirement that “imposes a substantial burden on a religious service” during an emergency, according to language from the bill.

The California Family Council, the Capitol Resource Institute, and the Judeo-Christian Caucus are among groups listed as co-sponsoring the bill.

By Alejandra Molina, for Religion News Service. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2021 Religion News Service

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