California Must Allow In-Person Church Services, Supreme Court Says

The Supreme Court ordered the state of California to allow indoor church services under its COVID-19 restrictions this week, according to a report by UPI. California has entered a "Tier 1" threat level as coronavirus cases skyrocket in the state. However, when large congregations brought the issue to the highest court in the land, it ruled in their favor.

The purple "Tier 1" section of California's "Blueprint for a Safer Economy" plan ordered all indoor worship services to cease until the number of COVID-19 cases and the rate of new infections dropped. The South Bay Pentecostal Church, a large congregation near San Diego, responded by filing an emergency request to the Supreme Court, asking it to block this indoor church prohibition. While they were at it, the 600-seat church asked the Supreme Court to alter the state's limits on attendance, bans on singing and chanting during worship.

The Supreme Court issued an order late on Friday night. It agreed to stop the state from restricting indoor worship altogether but voted to allow the attendance restrictions, limiting each service to 25 percent capacity. It also voted to prohibit singing and chanting in church.

The Supreme Court was also answering a similar challenge from the Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, California. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the "federal courts owe significant deference" to public health officials, but he felt that there must be limits. He argued: "The state's present determination -- that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero -- appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake."

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The court's three liberal justices — Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor — disagreed in a co-written dissent. It read: "Justices of this court are not scientists. Nor do we know much about public health policy. Yet today the court displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging pandemic."

California allows outdoor church services regardless of the COVID-19 threat at any given time, and online services are also available. California's "purple tier" is invoked when the state has more than seven new cases of coronavirus for every 100,000 residents per day. At the time of this writing, the state has suffered 43,631 deaths from the pandemic, and the numbers are still on the rise in some densely populated areas.