Appeals court rules on California churches that challenged Covid restrictions

An appeals court last week ruled for a second time against a California church which challenged the state’s rules barring in-person worship services for much of the state, deciding that a total ban on indoor worship services in most areas of the state is justified to block the spread of coronavirus.

The same court ruled Jan. 25 to prevent the state from enforcing fixed numerical attendance limits in areas where indoor worship is allowed, in favor of limits based on percentage of the house of worship’s capacity.

South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista had brought a legal challenge on First Amendment grounds against California’s COVID-19 restrictions, which currently prohibit indoor worship in most areas, while allowing unlimited attendance at outdoor services.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Jan. 22 ruled against the church, affirming a district court’s previous ruling and concluding that “California’s restrictions on indoor worship are narrowly tailored to meet its compelling—and immediate—state interest in stopping the community spread of the deadly coronavirus.”

Under current California rules, indoor worship services are banned in all “purple-tiered” counties; counties deemed to have “widespread” transmission risk based on the number of cases per 100,000 and the average positivity rate.

All but four of the state’s counties are currently classified in the purple tier, and as of Jan. 19, the “purple” tier covered 99.9% of California’s population.

California is the only state in the country with an indoor worship services ban. In the second-highest tier, red, indoor services are allowed but only with 25% capacity or— until the 9th Circuit’s Monday ruling— 100 people, whichever is fewer.

In the 9th Circuit’s Monday ruling, the court wrote in a case brought by Harvest Rock Church that in light of the South Bay decision, the court would not strike down the total ban on indoor worship, but would enjoin the state from enforcing its numerical restrictions in lower tiers.

Instead, the state may only enforce the attendance limitations based on the percentage of total capacity, the court said.