Supreme Court lifts some restrictions on California church services

The Supreme Court late Friday ruled that California can’t enforce some of its restrictions on church services, partially lifting limits put in place during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a 6-3 ruling, the judges held that the state can’t ban indoor worship, but it can cap indoor services at 25 percent capacity. The court also didn’t stop the state from enforcing a ban on indoor singing and chanting.

The court ruled in two cases brought against the state by churches — one by South Bay United Pentecostal Church and another by Harvest Rock Church — over restrictions there.


California had moved to bar indoor worship services and other indoor activities such as dining and movie screenings in areas designated as "Tier 1" — which covers most of the state — due to high coronavirus numbers.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that federal courts owe “significant deference to politically accountable officials regarding public health restrictions” but added that deference “has its restrictions.”

Roberts also explained that the way the state decided 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.”

Justice Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettSupreme Court low on political standing Graham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet Are COVID-19 vaccine mandates a strategy to end the pandemic? MORE, the court’s newest conservative justice, wrote for herself and Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughGraham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally Senators denounce protest staged outside home of Justice Kavanaugh MORE that she wasn’t clear on if the ban was being applied to everyone or “favors certain sectors.”

“Of course, if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral,” Barrett wrote. “But the record is uncertain, and the decisions below unfortunately shed little light on the issue.”


Justices Elena KaganElena KaganNorth Carolina voting rights ruling offers a model of anti-racist jurisprudence To infinity and beyond: What will it take to create a diverse and representative judiciary? Texas, abortion and the tyranny of the shadow docket MORE, Stephen BreyerStephen BreyerBarrett: Supreme Court 'not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks' Sunday shows - Manchin says he won't vote for .5 trillion bill Breyer says term limits would 'make life easier for me' MORE and Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorWill the DOJ manage to protect our constitutional rights now that the Supreme Court refuses to? Supreme Court trashed its own authority in a rush to gut Roe v Wade Supreme Court's abortion ruling amplifies progressives' call for reform MORE all dissented from the opinion. Kagan wrote that the court’s ruling “defies our caselaw, exceeds our judicial role and risks worsening the pandemic” by making a “special exception” for worship services.

“I fervently hope that the Court’s intervention will not worsen the nation’s COVID crisis,” Kagan wrote. “But if this decision causes suffering, we will not pay.”

Daniel Lopez, a spokesperson for California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomCalifornia to replace 'alien' with 'noncitizen,' 'immigrant' in state laws The Memo: Trump's Arizona embarrassment sharpens questions for GOP California to launch program tracking violent deaths in LGBTQ+ community MORE (D), signaled that the state would move to comply with the ruling.

"While the Supreme Court enjoined the state’s restriction on indoor worship services in counties where COVID-19 is widespread, the Court left in place public health measures imposed to protect worshippers, their families, and the communities in which they live," Lopez said in a statement to The Hill. "We will continue to enforce the restrictions the Supreme Court left in place and, after reviewing the decision, we will issue revised guidelines for worship services to continue to protect the lives of Californians."

The spokesperson defended the state's efforts to combat COVID-19, saying it took "necessary steps throughout the pandemic to protect Californians from COVID-19 and prevent our health care system from being overwhelmed by the disease, particularly during the recent surge."

The ruling comes a few months after the high court ruled 5-4 to bar New York from enforcing limits on how many people can attend services due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Updated: 12 p.m.