EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was updated after its initial posting.
WASHINGTON (BP) – Southern Baptist leaders and religious freedom advocates commended the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision late Feb. 5 that rejected California’s ban on indoor worship services in most of the state.
In a 6-3 opinion, the high court halted California’s prohibition of indoor worship in Tier 1, the state’s category for the highest risk of COVID-19’s transmission, and substituted a limit of 25 percent capacity. Most of California is classified as Tier 1, resulting in a nearly statewide ban on indoor corporate worship and the most extreme restriction in the country.
The justices, however, declined to block the state’s ban on singing and chanting in indoor services. They said the churches involved in the lawsuit are free to offer new evidence in federal court that California is not applying the prohibition on singing and chanting in a neutral way.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), described the ruling as “reasonable and good.”
“The decision respects the inviolable constitutional rights to religious freedom as well as the legitimate role of the government in fighting a deadly virus,” he said in a written statement. “It ensures that churches are not penalized because they are religious as opposed to being members of the business or entertainment industries.
“I hope that now all states will focus on working with, and not against, religious communities on our common goal: caring for the sick, protecting the vulnerable, and ending this pandemic.”
Rolland Slade, senior pastor of Meridian Baptist Church in El Cajon and chairman of the SBC Executive Committee, expressed his gratitude for the Supreme Court’s decision and for the churches “that stood their grounds” in challenging the restrictions.
“My position from the start has been that State public health officials should work with Faith Communities to provide safe guidelines for continued indoor worship,” Slade told BP in written remarks. “As leaders, we would not willingly place our congregants in jeopardy. Our role is to lead not to harm.
“In light of the ruling, I look forward to engaging in discussion with our local public health officials in reopening houses of worship and meeting the spiritual needs of our community.”
The California Southern Baptist Convention (CSBC) embraced the long-awaited relief.
“It’s about time,” Terry Barone, leader of the CSBC’s communications team, told Baptist Press in written comments. “Early on, CSBC went on record in a letter to our governor that churches are ‘an essential part of the fabric of the State of California and our nation.’ However, the voices of the religious sector were all but ignored.
“The Supreme Court’s decision certainly is welcomed and gives our churches clear direction in moving forward to meet once again, although churches still are required to follow state guidelines for indoor worship,” Barone said.
David Cortman, Alliance Defending Freedom’s vice president of U.S. litigation, said the high court “is reinforcing what it has affirmed in previous orders: Disparate treatment is both illogical and unconstitutional. Gov. [Gavin] Newsom has a duty to respect the First Amendment, so he can’t single out church worship services and other religious meetings for the draconian COVID-19 restrictions that many secular activities haven’t faced in California.”
Liberty Counsel, which represents one of the churches bringing the lawsuit, welcomed the ruling. “A pandemic is no excuse for violating the Constitution,” Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver said. “Until today, California imposed the most severe restrictions on places of worship. Not anymore.”
In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, Newsom’s administration issued new guidelines for indoor worship Feb. 6 that permit 25 percent capacity in counties where COVID-19 transmission is designated as widespread or substantial and 50 percent capacity in counties considered moderate or minimal.
“We will continue to enforce the restrictions the Supreme Court left in place,” said Newsom spokesman Daniel Lopez, according to The Sacramento Bee.
The high court’s ruling is the latest in a series of judicial decisions in response to challenges by churches and other religious bodies of state and local directives intended to protect public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of those restrictions, such as California’s, have treated churches and other worship communities unequally in comparison to many businesses, the ERLC and other religious freedom organizations have pointed out.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said California’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.”
Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch – joined by Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito – said in another opinion he would also overturn the state’s ban on singing and chanting in corporate worship, contending California has violated the First Amendment’s protection of free exercise of religion.
The state “has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses,” Gorsuch wrote. “California no longer asks its movie studios, malls, and manicurists to wait” for a temporary ban to be lifted.
“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,” he wrote. “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.”
In a concurring opinion, new Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, joined by Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, said the case did not demonstrate whether the singing ban is applied generally or favors some categories. “Of course, if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral,” she wrote.
Associate Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor disagreed with the court’s decision.
Writing for the dissenters, Kagan said the high court “displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging pandemic” by ordering the state “to weaken its restrictions on public gatherings by making a special exception for worship services. The majority does so even though the State’s policies treat worship just as favorably as secular activities (including political assemblies) that, according to medical evidence, pose the same risk of COVID transmission.”
The Supreme Court action came after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled against both Southern California churches that had challenged enforcement of Newsom’s ban on indoor worship services. A three-judge panel unanimously agreed Jan. 22 with a federal judge’s refusal to grant a request for an injunction from South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, while another three-person panel applied that decision in its Jan. 25 ruling against Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena and its affiliated network, Harvest International Ministry.
A Ninth Circuit panel, however, granted a preliminary injunction in December against Nevada for attendance limits on houses of worship that are stricter than those imposed on such secular entities as casinos, bowling alleys, retail stores and restaurants.
In late November, the Supreme Court blocked enforcement of New York’s pandemic restrictions on religious gatherings, finding they “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.” The justices have since applied that opinion in other orders.
Southern Baptist leaders commended guidelines issued in May 2020 by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for restoring in-person worship gatherings. The guidance reminded state and local officials to take the First Amendment right of religious liberty into account when they institute reopening policies. No church or other religious group should be called on to enact “mitigation strategies” stricter than those requested of “similarly situated entities or activities,” according to the CDC.