Supreme Court Rules Against California’s Ban on Indoor Church Services, but Says State Can Keep Restrictions on Attendance and Singing

The Supreme Court said California can no longer continue with a ban on indoor church services put in place amid the pandemic. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A divided Supreme Court has ruled that California can no longer continue with a ban on indoor church services put in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but said the state can keep in place restrictions on singing and chanting inside.

The two cases at the center of Friday’s rulings marked a test of how far states can go to safeguard public health before running afoul of constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion. In response to suits brought by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and the Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, the court said California cannot bar in-person services altogether, but can limit attendance to 25%.

The churches argued that California violated their religious liberty when it moved last year to place limits on attendance at in-person worship services based on COVID-19 infection rates. In the hardest-hit areas of the state, in-person services were put on hold completely. So too was singing and chanting inside, given that the coronavirus is not only more transmissible in enclosed spaces, but that singing releases tiny droplets that carry the virus through the air.

In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that federal courts owe “significant deference” to state officials when it comes to matters of public health, but he said such deference can only go so far.

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