SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom's office said Saturday it will issue revised guidelines for indoor church services after the Supreme Court lifted the state's ban on indoor worship during the coronavirus 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.
California had put the restrictions in place because the virus is more easily transmitted indoors and 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.
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.
“You can go to your house of worship, as of now! You can go back to church, we're excited about that,” Pastor Art Hodges of the South Bay United Pentecostal Church told KNSD-TV.
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.
On Instagram, Harvest Rock's ministry in downtown Los Angeles announced it would hold an in-person service Saturday evening.
“Bring the kiddos! We'd love to see the whole family for service tonight!” the announcement said, followed by the hashtag #inpersonservice.
Attorney Mathew Staver, who represents the church, said in a statement that he and his clients would “continue to press this case until religious freedom is totally restored.”
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest of its kind in the U.S. with more than 5 million Catholics, advised parishes returning to indoor worship to follow the singing and room-capacity rules, in addition to requiring face masks.
The court’s action follows a decision in a case from New York late last year in which the justices split 5-4 in barring the state from enforcing certain limits on attendance at churches and synagogues. Shortly after, the justices told a federal court to reexamine California’s restrictions in light of the ruling.
With few exceptions, California's COVID-19 restrictions have been largely upheld. But a number of lawsuits such as one seeking to allow outdoor dining are still in the courts.
Before the rulings, indoor worship services were banned in all purple-tiered counties - those deemed to be at widespread risk of coronavirus transmission. This tier accounts for the vast majority of the state.