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Chula Vista Church Wins Right To Worship Indoors Amid Pandemic

South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, May 20, 2020.

Photo by Alexander Nguyen

Above: South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, May 20, 2020.

A Chula Vista church was celebrating a legal victory Saturday after the U.S. Supreme Court granted a partial injunction against California's prohibition against indoor worship services to help limit the spread of coronavirus.

On a 6-3 vote late Friday, the court cited the Constitution's protection of the free exercise of religion and ruled that "regulations like these violate the First Amendment unless the State can show they are the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest."

The ruling allowed restrictions on crowd size, singing and chanting to remain in place.

It came in response to filings on behalf of 600-seat 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.

"We are heartened by this order from the United States Supreme Court allowing South Bay to gather for worship this weekend while our case against Governor Newsom continues," said Charles LiMandri, special counsel for Thomas More Society, a national public interest law firm that worked with the church on the case. "For decades, the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that an 'emergency does not increase granted power,' and they have specifically come down against excessive gubernatorial overreach during the current pandemic. It is time for the United States Constitution to be honored in the State of California and we thank the high court for upholding religious liberty and acting on South Bay's behalf."

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Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that federal courts owe "significant deference" to politically accountable officials in public health matters, but said that deference has its limits.

"The state's present determination — that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero — appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake," Roberts wrote.

The decision reflected the court's current ideological divide with six conservative justices in favor of the partial injunction and the three liberals dissenting.

"Justices of this court are not scientists," Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote in dissent to the majority ruling. "Nor do we know much about public health policy. Yet today the court displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging pandemic."

The ruling did leave in place a 25 percent capacity restriction and a prohibition on singing and chanting.

"The state has concluded, for example, that singing indoors poses a heightened risk of transmitting Covid-19," Roberts wrote. "I see no basis in this record for overriding that aspect of the state public health framework."

The ruling was the latest in a series of high-profile emergency requests to the nation's highest court seeking guidance on the question of whether health orders aimed at containing COVID-19 apply to churches and other houses of worship.

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In a similar case in New York, the court ruled 5-4 on Nov. 25 in favor of a challenge to coronavirus-related restrictions by houses of worship in that state.

Last year, South Bay United Pentecostal Church was repeatedly denied preliminary injunctions against the state health orders by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, prompting the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Similarly, a federal appeals court turned down Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry's bid for an emergency pre-Christmas ruling after the Supreme Court directed the lower courts to reconsider the matter.

California's regional stay-at-home orders have prohibited indoor activities across a broad range of industries, but does allow for outdoor religious services.

Representatives for South Bay and Harvest Rock have argued that outdoor worship or those held by video-conferencing are "inadequate substitutes" for in-person gatherings and that the public health orders prohibit the church "from holding the services mandated by scripture."

They have also argued that California has arbitrarily allowed certain sectors considered essential to stay open and conduct indoor operations while discriminating against religious institutions.

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