On December 3, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a California court’s denial of a request for injunctive relief from South Bay United Pentecostal Church and sent the case back to a lower court for further consideration in light of the court’s Diocese of Brooklyn decision a month earlier that halted a New York order to restrict religious services due to COVID-19.
The case — South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom — was remanded to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. An evidentiary hearing has now been scheduled for May 13, 2021, where U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant has ordered California to show how it came up with its capacity limits on in-person worship services.
“What I’m interested in is the occupancy rate,” said Judge Bashant. “If the state can’t show they’re treating churches the same or better than retail, I’m inclined to issue the preliminary injunction.”
South Bay is seeking to block the state’s COVID-19 restrictions on churches and other places of worship. The hearing follows a February 6, 2021, U.S. Supreme Court order that found California’s ban on in-person church services was unconstitutional.
South Bay has argued that California’s occupancy limits on places of worship are more restrictive than limits imposed on retailers like Walmart and Target, which are considered “grocery stores” under the state’s tiered reopening program.
Under the second highest tier level (Red), grocery stores have been allowed to operate at full capacity, where churches were limited to 25% capacity for indoor worship. Under the third highest tier level (Orange), retail establishments were allowed to operate at full capacity, where churches have been restricted to 50% capacity for indoor services.
On April 23, 2021, the state updated its guidance “in response to recent judicial rulings.” Effective immediately, location and capacity limits on places of worship are no longer mandatory. However, the state “strongly recommends” that places of worship adhere to prior guidance based on tier status. In addition, the state lifted restrictions on indoor singing and chanting while still recommending that places of worship discourage these practices.
The Church Law Center of California advises religious and secular nonprofits on governance and risk management matters. To find out how we can assist your organization, call us today at (949) 245-3177 or reach out to us through our contact page.