California churches return to Supreme Court in fight against restrictions on worship amid COVID-19: Reports

Two California churches are poised to return to the U.S. Supreme Court with their challenges to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus-related restrictions on religious services.

The stage was set for those appeals after two separate panels of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued mixed-bag decisions that upheld prohibitions against indoor worship services in some instances, but struck down arbitrary capacity limitations in others, as the Washington Examiner reported.

Both churches first visited the Supreme Court in 2020, according to the Examiner; South Bay United Pentecostal was denied an emergency injunction in May, while Harvest Rock church was granted one in December.

At the time, both cases were ultimately kicked back down to the lower courts for further proceedings on the merits.

The 9th Circuit rules

After much anticipation, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit denied a request Friday from South Bay United to completely overturn Newsom’s ban on indoor religious services amid the pandemic, even as the panel agreed that the church was suffering “irreparable harm” from the restrictions, as the Sacramento Bee reported.

Instead, the judges ruled that the ban didn’t violate the First Amendment in places where COVID-19 was deemed “widespread,” since churches still had the option of holding outdoor services, according to the Bee.

Those judges did, however, strongly suggest that the capacity limitations of 100 or 200 congregants for indoor services — dependent upon the region’s particular pandemic-related “tier” — were arbitrary and likely unconstitutional.

Another day in the court

Meanwhile, a different three-judge panel issued a similar ruling for Harvest Rock on Monday, again upholding the ban on indoor services where the virus is “widespread,” but calling into question the capacity limitations where it isn’t, as the Los Angeles Times reported.

Rather than uphold the 100- or 200-person limits, which were based solely on regional tiers and not the size of any individual house of worship, the panel ruled that the limitations should be based on a percentage of the overall capacity of a facility as determined by local fire codes.

Both panels upheld the state’s prohibition on chanting or singing at indoor services, reports noted.

Looking forward

It didn’t take long for Harvest Rock, for its part, to file an appeal to the Supreme Court; by Tuesday, the move was already done, according to Pasadena Now.

It remains to be seen what will come of these cases, but one thing is for certain: the persistent lawsuits are sending a clear message that arbitrary rules that infringe on individual liberties won’t be tolerated, at least not without a fight.

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