U.S. Supreme Court Orders California County to Allow Church Gatherings

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On February 27, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Santa Clara County, California, to allow indoor worship services while the county’s restrictions are being challenged in federal court. A group of five county churches had submitted an emergency petition to the court to enforce its February 5, 2021, ruling in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom that found California’s ban on in-person worship services was unconstitutional.

The emergency application for injunctive relief was filed by five Santa Clara County churches, which challenged the enforcement of a county order banning indoor worship services. The plaintiff churches argued that the county’s order discriminated against religious organizations by treating other entities like grocery stores and airports more favorably.

The plaintiffs also said that the Supreme Court’s rulings in two recent cases — Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, where the court halted a New York State Executive Order imposing attendance restrictions on religious services, and South Bay — support their argument for allowing resumption of indoor worship services in Santa Clara County.

Santa Clara County, which had banned all indoor gatherings, said it had treated houses of worship no differently from other indoor venues where it prohibits gatherings and caps attendance. The county said that the court’s South Bay decision did not apply to its ban because the county’s local health orders are “structured in a fundamentally different way than the state’s rules” that were the subject of the South Bay decision.

Because the county’s COVID-19 rates continued to decline, the county informed the court that it would soon allow indoor worship services and other prohibited indoor gatherings to resume with capacity limits. However, the court declined to wait to see if the county would lift the restrictions and issued an unsigned order granting the churches’ request to place the restrictions on hold until their appeals play out, saying that their decision was “clearly dictated” by their order in South Bay.

The Church Law Center of California assists churches with organization, governance, and risk management. We can help your church craft policies so it is in a better position to address problems as they arise. To find out how we can help your church, call us today at (949) 892-1221 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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