Supreme Court weighs California's limits on church crowds during pandemic

David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court is set to decide on a religious freedom claim from a south San Diego County church that wants an exemption from California's COVID-19 rules, which limit large gatherings for services.

Lawyers for the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista argue that the First Amendment's protection of the "free exercise" of religion outweighs the state's power to enforce a quarantine during a pandemic, at least when churches are subjected to stricter limits than other businesses or groups.

They said they had the support of President Donald Trump, the U.S. attorneys in California and a growing number of religious conservatives who contend the state's restrictions on church services go too far.

"A fundamental question that goes to the very heart of our constitutional legal order is whether and to what extent state and local officials may lawfully enforce categorical restrictions on public worship," they said, including "fixed limits" on the number of worshippers.

Lawyers for the state said the safety guidelines for churches and other places where people gather are changing, and they urged the high court to stand back for now.

The church and Bishop Arthur Hodges III sought a court order as a shield against enforcement, but lost before a federal judge in San Diego and by a 2-1 vote in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court upheld California's rules in a brief decision on May 22.


"We're dealing here with a highly contagious and often fatal disease for which there presently is no known cure," wrote Judge Barry Silverman, an appointee of President Bill Clinton.

The dissent came from Judge Daniel P. Collins, a new appointee of Trump's, who noted that factories and warehouses were open and operating while churches were closed.

Last weekend, the church filed an emergency appeal and urged the justices to act quickly to open services for this Sunday, May 31, the "Christian holy day of Pentecost."

Before the justices could look at the appeal, however, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued new guidelines on Monday that will allow houses of worship to reopen, but with limits. The new rules say "places of worship must limit attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower."


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