The Supreme Court ruled that California cannot ban indoor worship services in a 6-3 decision on Feb. 5. This decision was in response to the state’s earlier prohibition of indoor worship services in counties in the purple tier, the category with the most restrictions in the state’s four-tier system for reopening. Before the court decision, church services could only occur outside or virtually.
“According to the concurring opinion of Chief Justice Roberts, California failed to present a clear scientific justification for banning all indoor worship services,” said Chase Porter, assistant professor of political science. “Roberts was skeptical that a ban on indoor worship, no matter the size of the building or attendance, could be justified by the evidence that California presented.”
The case, South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Gavin Newsom, ruled that the state cannot prohibit indoor services, but it can place capacity limits on the services to 25% normal capacity and limit singing and chanting.
Porter said the decision will allow worshippers to return to indoor services and exercise their rights, but some concern remains regarding whether or not this shift could spread COVID-19. However, since capacity limits and other restrictions aim to reduce close contact between attendees, he said churches can take steps to prevent the spread of the virus.
“I am inclined to think that restrictions on capacity can be more easily justified than blanket bans,” Porter said. “The dissenters brought up an important constitutional issue; that is, that churches are now being treated more favorably than venues like movie theaters, which have similar risk profiles for the spread. But capacity limits take into account possibilities for social distancing that outright bans do not, and thus they strike me as a prudent course of action. The Court is ultimately correct on the point that we must consider constitutional rights when weighing appropriate public health measures.”
In response to the decision, some California churches have reopened for indoor services. For example, The Grove Community Church now offers two indoor services in addition to an outdoor service and livestream each weekend. The church requires pre-registration, social distancing, masks and a limited capacity.
Taylor Mowers, junior psychology and pre-occupational therapy major, attends The Grove Community Church and attended one of its new indoor services.
“I think that when people are searching for a church that they can call home, they base some of their decision off of the feel of services,” Mowers said. “People tend to choose what they are comfortable with, and indoor services are an essential way to decide that for sure. Even though COVID-19 is still definitely around, the church is doing a great job being careful.”
Hannah Lee, freshman film major, attends Antioch Church in Riverside, which she said has begun to offer indoor services.
“An essential factor in the church is fellowship and you lose a large connection when you are outside,” Lee said. “The weather is a factor, but most important is the connection achieved when the congregation is together under the same roof, bringing unity.”
Porter said the decision could affect future decisions regarding the power states have during the pandemic.