Ruling says churches can meet indoors, but local places of worship plan to continue outdoor services
Churches, synagogues, temples and other places of worship in California were granted permission to resume indoor services over the weekend after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on indoor worship during the pandemic.
In a 6-3 decision, the high court ruled Friday that Gov. Newsom’s order violated the Constitution’s provision for the free exercise of religion.
As a result of the ruling, the Supreme Court declared that the state can limit churches to 25% capacity indoors and restrict singing and chanting.
However, a number of places of worship in Santa Barbara County will not be returning to indoor services immediately. Many cited the ongoing threat of the pandemic towards vulnerable populations in their congregation.
A number of churches in the county belong to the Episcopal Dioceses based in Los Angeles, who declared earlier this week that services would remain outdoors or online despite the ruling.
“It’s not safe for people to be indoors for an hour at a time across household groups, especially those most at-risk,” bishops of the Episcopal Dioceses in Los Angeles said in a statement. “Constitutional law experts will debate the fine points. But those who think the government is singling out churches, temples, mosques, and other worship venues would have to overlook theaters, museums, lecture halls, and fitness centers — secular businesses and institutions whose inside activity has also been suspended to keep people from prolonged contact with one another.”
Rabbi Daniel Brenner of Congregation B’nai B’rith of Santa Barbara told the News-Press that he is not planning to hold indoor services anytime soon, regardless of the Supreme Court ruling.
“Just because we’re now allowed to have indoor services doesn’t mean we’re going to,” Rabbi Brenner said Monday. “We haven’t determined that it’s safe for our community, and we are going by the recommendations of the medical and scientific communities.”
During the pandemic, Rabbi Brenner’s congregation met online for all services and holiday celebrations and only held in-person gatherings for funerals and bat and bar mitzvahs. The synagogue also created a coronavirus task force composed of clergy leaders and congregational members in the medical field who have helped inform the synagogue’s decisions moving forward.
“We don’t think there is any indication we should be praying indoors. … Public health (officials) and the medical community have been briefing us, and we feel this is the right course of action right now,” Rabbi Brenner said. “The Supreme Court decision doesn’t change anything for us.”
Still, other clergy in the area are grateful for the opportunity to give congregants the option to meet inside if they choose.
Father Bobby Barbato, pastor at Old Mission Santa Inés in Solvang, is looking forward to welcoming church members inside during the weekly 8 a.m. services on Wednesdays and Sundays. The cooler morning weather in the Santa Ynez Valley has made the outdoor services more difficult, Father Barbato told the News-Press Monday.
About 40 people attend the early services on Wednesday and Sunday, a number that meets the restrictions for indoor gatherings.
Starting Wednesday morning, the church will welcome members indoors to worship, while enforcing social distancing and mask wearing. The church still plans to offer outdoor services to accommodate a larger group of members.
Throughout the pandemic, many church members met outdoors or listened to the church broadcast via a local radio station in their cars. During the service, the clergy would deliver communion to church members through their passenger windows.
“I am glad for the opportunity (to meet indoors),” Father Barbato said. “We always want to make sure that we’re protecting everyone’s health while recognizing the importance of coming to give their worship.”
Gov. Newsom’s restrictions were challenged in two separate cases brought to the court by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and Harvest Rock Church based in Pasadena. South Bay has a record of defying the governor’s orders in recent months by holding indoor services during the ban. Both churches in Los Angeles County held in-person services over the weekend.
The Supreme Court’s six conservative judges agreed the state’s restrictions singled out churches unfairly, yet held different opinions on the way forward.
Justices Nei M. Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. voted to lift all restrictions against churches, including limitations to singing and chanting, while Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett M. Kavanaugh believed churches should open with continued restrictions on worship.
“California worries that worship brings people together for too much time,” Justice Gorsuch said. “Yet, California does not limit its citizens to running in and out of other establishments; no one is barred from lingering in shopping malls, salons or bus terminals.”
The court’s three liberal justices — Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sontomayor — dissented, asserting that California’s restrictions on both religious and secular activities were largely the same.
“The Court orders California to weaken its restrictions on public gatherings by making a special exception for worship services,” Justice Kagan wrote in the dissenting opinion. “The majority does so even though the State’s policies treat worship just as favorably as secular activities that, according to medical evidence, pose the same risk of COVID transmission.
“Under the Court’s injunction, the State must instead treat worship services like secular activities that pose a much lesser danger. That mandate defies our case law, exceeds our judicial role, and risks worsening the pandemic.”