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Court clears way for indoor worship services in northern California

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In the latest of a line of challenges to restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court ordered a California county to allow churches to hold indoor worship services. In a brief order on Friday night, the justices granted a request to block county public health restrictions imposed in light of the pandemic while the restrictions are being challenged in federal court.

The request was filed by a group of churches in Santa Clara County, challenging the enforcement of a county order barring indoor worship services. The churches came to the Supreme Court on Feb. 17, asking the justices to allow them to hold services inside as soon as possible. They argued that the county’s order discriminates against houses of worship by treating other activities, including grocery stores and airports, more favorably. The churches pointed to the Supreme Court’s recent rulings in two cases – one lifting New York’s COVID-related limits on attendance at worship services and the other granting requests by southern California churches to resume indoor worship services – to support their contention that the Santa Clara County order must also fall.

The county initially urged the justices to leave the ban on indoor worship services in place. The county explained that, in response to “the most deadly pandemic in more than a century,” it had imposed public health restrictions that “are fundamentally different from the other COVID-19 restrictions this Court has considered.” Specifically, the county explained, the order at issue doesn’t single out religious institutions or worship services. Instead, it stressed, the county’s public health directives “prohibit all indoor gatherings of all kinds at all places.” On Thursday, the county told the court that, because COVID-19 rates continue to fall there, it would allow indoor worship services and other prohibited indoor gatherings to resume with capacity limits. That change could take effect as soon as Wednesday, Mar. 3, James Williams, the county’s chief lawyer, wrote in his letter.

The justices acted quickly after receiving the county’s letter, without waiting to see whether the county would in fact lift its restrictions. In an unsigned order on Friday night, the justices granted the churches’ request to put the restrictions on hold while their appeals play out. Such a result, the justices explained, “is clearly dictated by” the Supreme Court’s Feb. 5 ruling in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, granting the requests by southern California churches to resume indoor worship services.

Justice Elena Kagan, who dissented in the South Bay case, indicated that she dissented in Friday’s case for the same reasons. She was joined by the two other members of the court’s liberal bloc, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. No other justice indicated how he or she voted in the case, but the churches needed at least five votes to prevail.

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court.

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