California’s strict coronavirus rules banning indoor worship were blocked and revised by a U.S. Supreme Court injunction late Friday night, drawing praise from figures like Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. He emphasized the importance of in-person religious gatherings and stressed that the Catholic Church is following “reasonable measures” to limit the epidemic.
“This is a very significant step forward for basic rights. This decision makes clear we can now return to worshiping safely indoors without risk of harassment from government officials,” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco said Feb. 6.
“As Christians we are members of a Church, which literally means an assembly of people coming together to worship God,” Cordileone continued. “This is our identity; it is in our very nature to gather in person to give honor and glory to God. And especially as Catholics we know that our worship cannot be livestreamed: there is no way to give Communion, or any of the other sacraments via the internet.”
California’s limits on religious services can vary by county, depending on infection rates. However, almost all of the state is in the Tier 1 ranking of viral spread, and this tier bars in-person worship indoors, the New York Times reports. Critics have said the ban wrongly singles out religious gatherings and is among the strictest in the country.
The Supreme Court’s unsigned order said that the total ban on indoor worship is unconstitutional. At most, the state may limit indoor capacity to 25% of normal. It left the ban on singing intact.
The injunction concerned two different challenges brought by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, both of which had sued California Gov. Gavin Newsom. The Chicago-based Thomas More Society, a legal group with a specialty in religious freedom cases, was representing the South Bay church.
Six justices favored the injunction, while three did not. Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
“California no longer asks its movie studios, malls, and manicurists to wait,” Gorsuch said. “As this crisis enters its second year — and hovers over a second Lent, a second Passover, and a second Ramadan — it is too late for the state to defend extreme measures with claims of temporary exigency, if it ever could. Drafting narrowly tailored regulations can be difficult. But if Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry.”
Gorsuch said lower courts should have followed the “extensive guidance” previously given by the Supreme Court. “This court made it abundantly clear that edicts like California’s fail strict scrutiny and violate the Constitution,” he said.
Chief Justice Roberts, writing in his own opinion, said that the state’s judgement that no adherents can safely worship even in “the most cavernous cathedral” is a view that “appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.” At the same time, he saw “no basis” to override the state ban on singing indoors, given conclusions that singing raises the risk of spreading the Covid-19 virus.
Cordileone said the importance of in-person worship and in-person distribution of the sacraments is why he gave pastors permission at Christmas “to bring congregations indoors under the same conditions permitted indoor retail, if the weather or safety conditions required it.”
“The Supreme Court has now made it very clear to California government that permitting this is a fundamental right and the law of the land,” the archbishop said. “I trust and hope our state officials will appreciate the care we’ve taken all throughout this crisis to protect the public health with masks, social distancing and other reasonable measures.”
Justice Elana Kagan wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. She accused the court of practicing “armchair epidemiology” in “the worst public health crisis in a century.”
The above comes from a Feb. 6 story on the site of the Catholic News Agency.