Coronavirus in San Diego County

Supreme Court Ruling On Churches Could Have Implications for California Houses of Worship

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The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 to bar restrictions put on religious services in New York put in place to combat the spread of coronavirus.

The ruling was the reverse of an earlier decision earlier in the pandemic and could change the way public health officials set guidelines for houses of worship everywhere.

The South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista has been challenging coronavirus restrictions since the pandemic began. A United States Supreme Court ruling in May said restrictions on the church were consistent with constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, but a new ruling, with Justice Amy Coney Barret in the majority, found the restrictions in New York violated the First Amendment.

"Now the United States Supreme Court said in this most recent ruling that the Constitution does not take a holiday during the pandemic, in some ways those rights are more important and more necessary than ever," said legal analyst Dan Eaton.

The new ruling gives renewed hope to churches like South Bay United Pentecostal Church that are hoping to be able to gather indoors with no more limitations than any other type of business.

"They're not asking for no restrictions, they're asking to be given the same opportunities as others establishments, which is follow the protocols that other retailers are allowed to follow," said Paul Jonna, an attorney representing the church.

The ruling comes as San Diego County public health officials alerted the public about a coronavirus outbreak at Awaken Church in Kearny Mesa. That church openly defied county public health orders in July and was issued a cease-and-desist order, but continued to operate in defiance.

The church explained its decision in a video on their website.

"It's no longer reasonable to think we can pastor 6,000 people from afar, nor is it reasonable to think we can hold outdoor services in parking lots and parks that cannot reasonably accommodate the size of our church. It is time for us to reopen and care for and minister to our people in this city," the church said.

Legal experts say the new ruling doesn't mean churches can do whatever they want. They will still have to follow local public health guidelines, but it might make politicians ease up on restrictions on houses of worship to avoid legal challenges.

Los Angeles County's new public health order that took effect Monday bans indoor and outdoor gatherings of any kind except protests and religious gatherings.

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