SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A federal appeals court has denied a Southern California church’s request to overturn the state’s coronavirus restrictions barring worship services indoors during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a newspaper report Saturday.
The Sacramento Bee said Friday’s ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals leaves the door open for addressing Gov. Gavin Newsom administration’s limits on church attendance if a California county is in a less-restrictive COVID-19 tier.
A three-judge panel ruled against South Bay United Pentecostal Church of Chula Vista over public health orders that restrict religious services from being held inside while virus case rates and hospitalizations remain high.
While the panel agreed the San Diego-area church is suffering “irreparable harm,” the judges believed California’s rules to curb the spread of the virus did not violate First Amendment rights, the Bee reported.
The judges said the ban on indoor service is directly tied to the state’s effects to curb the spread of COVID-19, which has killed 36,000 Californians and infected more than 3 million.
Newsom and the state have faced multiple lawsuits over restrictions on gatherings, church services, restaurant dining and other limits on activities aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
“We are mindful that ‘even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,’” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote in the court’s opinion. “But we do not think this is what California has done.”
South Bay had appealed the original denial by U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant twice and were denied an emergency injunction from the U.S. Supreme Court in May.
The court’s 50-page ruling was skeptical of Newsom’s attendance limits during worship services, suggesting those rules could be struck down, the Bee said.
The panel said it believed the church could succeed in its claim that the state’s 100- and 200-person attendance caps were unconstitutional.
The judges sent the matter back to the lower court to consider the attendance caps.
Currently in California, indoor worship services are banned in all purple-tiered counties — those deemed to be at widespread risk of coronavirus transmission. This tier accounts for the vast majority of the state. Just four counties are in less-restrictive tiers.