Court docket clears method for indoor worship providers in northern California

A partisan battle in an overreach of a case


By Amy Howe

at 9:17 a.m.

Most recently, the Supreme Court asked a California county to allow churches to hold services indoors. In a brief ruling on Friday evening, the judges issued a motion to freeze the county’s public health restrictions imposed in light of the pandemic, while the restrictions are being challenged in a federal court.

The motion was submitted by a group of Santa Clara County churches contesting the enforcement of a county ordinance other than indoor worship. The churches came to the Supreme Court on February 17 and asked the judges to allow them to worship inside as soon as possible. They argued that the county’s layout discriminated against places of worship by making other activities, including grocery stores and airports, cheaper. Churches cited recent Supreme Court rulings on two cases – one lifted COVID-related restrictions on attending church services in New York and the other encouraging southern California churches to resume indoor worship – to to support their claim that the Santa Clara County’s order must also fall.

The district initially asked the judges to maintain the ban on indoor worship. The county said that in response to “the deadliest pandemic in more than a century” it has imposed public health restrictions that are “fundamentally different from the other COVID-19 restrictions this court has considered”. In particular, said the district, neither religious institutions nor services are singled out in the order in question. Instead, it stressed, the county health guidelines forbid “all indoor gatherings of all kinds in all locations.” On Thursday, the county told the court that COVID-19 rates there would continue to fall, allowing indoor services and other prohibited indoor gatherings to resume with capacity restrictions. That change could take effect as early as Wednesday, March 3rd, James Williams, the district’s chief attorney, wrote in his letter.

The judges acted quickly after receiving the county letter, without waiting to see if the county would actually lift its restrictions. In an unsigned order on Friday evening, the judges upheld the churches’ motion to put restrictions on hold while their appeals are being carried out. Such an outcome, the judges said, “is clearly dictated by the February 5 Supreme Court ruling of the South Pent United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom,” calling for southern California churches to resume indoor worship.

Judge Elena Kagan, who disagreed on the South Bay case, said she disagreed on the Friday case for the same reasons. She was joined by the other two members of the court’s liberal bloc, Judge Stephen Breyer and Judge Sonia Sotomayor. No other judiciary indicated how he or she voted on the case, but the churches needed at least five votes to prevail.

This article was originally published by Howe on the Court.