California Gov. Gavin Newsom's office has issued revised guidelines for indoor church services after the Supreme Court lifted the state's ban on indoor worship during the COVID-19 pandemic, but left in place restrictions on singing and chanting.
In the most significant legal victory against California's COVID-19 health orders, the high court issued rulings late Friday in two cases where churches argued the restrictions violated their religious liberty. The justices said for now California can't continue with a ban on indoor church services, but it can limit attendance to 25% of a building's capacity and restrict singing and chanting inside.
The new state guidelines limit attendance at indoor services in areas with widespread or substantial virus spread to 25% of a building's capacity. Indoor services in areas with moderate to minimum spread are limited to 50% capacity.
California had put the ban in place arguing that the virus is more easily transmitted indoors and that singing releases tiny droplets that can carry the disease.
Newsom's office said those measures were imposed to protect worshippers from getting infected.
"We will continue to enforce the restrictions the Supreme Court left in place and, after reviewing the decision, we will issue revised guidelines for worship services to continue to protect the lives of Californians," the governor's press secretary, Daniel Lopez, said in a statement.
Justice Barrett's First Signed Opinion
The justices were acting on emergency requests to halt the restrictions from South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry, which has more than 160 churches across the state.
The court's newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, said in her first signed opinion that it was up to churches to demonstrate that they were entitled to relief from the singing ban. Writing for herself and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, she said it wasn't clear at this point whether the singing ban was being applied "across the board."
Pastor Art Hodges of the South Bay United Pentecostal Church told KNSD-TV he was just relieved that churches would be legally allowed to meet again.
You can go to your house of worship, as of now! You can go back to church, we're excited about that," he said.
The church has defied state orders since last May by holding service indoors while following COVID-19 safety protocols, Hodges said. He said he was thankful to hold services on Sunday "without any pressure or threat or concern" and added that the 25% attendance limit will make him add two or three more services to accommodate church members.
"It at least allows us some wiggle room to operate," he said.
Some Churches Will Keep Fighting for Right to Worship with Singing
Some churches opened their doors to worshippers on Sunday following the governor's announcement.
"This morning we declare that this house will be a house of freedom," announced Pastor Brittany Koopman at Harvest Rock Church near Los Angeles, one of the churches that sued the state over the ban. She led a socially distanced indoor crowd in prayer before Sunday's service, which was also streamed online.
Che Ahn, Harvest Rock's senior pastor, told his congregation that the church would defy the ban on singing.
"Fifty percent of worship is singing. We're gonna sing no matter what," Ahn said at the beginning of the service Sunday. He thanked the Supreme Court and said his lawyers would continue to petition for the right to sing during indoor services. The church argued the state was unfairly restricting churches while allowing the entertainment industry to film TV singing competitions.
Ahn called the state rules "draconian" and urged his congregants to sign a petition to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Other places of worship decided it might be best to wait.
The head of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco said the Supreme Court was "not doing anyone a favor" by lifting the ban.
"We're trying to follow the science and we're trying to be patient," Dean Malcolm Clemens Young told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest of its kind in the U.S. with more than five million Catholics, cautiously advised "parishes who choose to return" to indoor worship to follow the singing and room-capacity rules, in addition to requiring physical distancing and face masks.
"The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is gratified by the Supreme Court's decision to allow indoor worship services," it said in a statement.