Los Angeles Drops Church Attendance Restrictions

Los Angeles Drops Church Attendance Restrictions
A priest conducts Mass outdoors at the historic Our Lady Queen of Angels (La Placita) Church amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Los Angeles on Dec. 12, 2020. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

Los Angeles County says it’s dropping its tough restrictions on attendance at houses of worship after a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings struck down pandemic-related church attendance limits across the country.

Lawyers for Harvest Rock Church, which beat the State of California at the Supreme Court earlier this month, hailed the decision.

Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a public interest law firm headquartered in Orlando, Florida, is pleased with the county’s policy change.

“We are grateful for the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings that are resulting in the unconstitutional worship bans falling like dominoes,“ he said. ”The Supreme Court has made it very clear that the courts and the states must begin applying the First Amendment to protect houses of worship. No pastor, church, or parishioner in America should have to choose between worship and prison.”

While earlier in the pandemic saga, the Supreme Court deadlocked in a series of 4–4 decisions upholding various COVID-19-related restrictions, Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s arrival has allowed the court to limit overreaches by Democratic governors in four states so far.

On Nov. 25, the Supreme Court struck down, on a 5–4 vote, New York’s tough church attendance limits in the landmark ruling of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo.

Then on Dec. 3, the court sided with California churches, ruling against attendance limits in Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom. The applicants were Harvest Rock Church Inc. and Harvest International Ministry Inc., on behalf of its 162-member churches in California. Harvest Rock churches have been threatened with criminal prosecution, fines, and closure. The court’s order was unsigned and apparently unanimous.

In the order, the Supreme Court vacated a Sept. 2 order issued by Judge Jesus G. Bernal, an Obama appointee, who refused the churches’ request to enjoin Gov. Gavin Newsom’s policy. The high court also sent the case back to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals “with instructions to remand to the District Court for further consideration in light of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo.”

On Dec. 15, the Supreme Court struck down pandemic-related limits on attendance at houses of worship in New Jersey and Colorado in two separate lawsuits.

In Robinson v. Murphy, the court unanimously curbed New Jersey’s restrictions on church attendance. New Jersey’s lawyers apparently saw the writing on the wall, and a spokesman said the state supported the move. In the other case that day, High Plains Harvest Church v. Polis, the court voted 6–3 to lift church attendance limits in Colorado.

In a statement on Dec. 19,  Los Angeles County said the county’s Health Officer Order would be modified “to align with recent Supreme Court rulings for places of worship.”

“Places of worship are permitted to offer faith-based services both indoors and outdoors with mandatory physical distancing and face coverings over both the nose and mouth that must be worn at all times while on site,” the county said.

“Places of worship must also assure that attendance does not exceed the number of people who can be accommodated while maintaining a physical distance of six feet between separate households.

“Public Health strongly recommends that places of worship continue to hold services outdoors, with physical distancing and the use of face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to congregants and to the entire community. Because Los Angeles County is experiencing an unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, every effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to congregants and to the entire community is critical.”

Newsom, a Democrat, is now facing a serious recall effort in part because of his heavy-handed approach to combating the CCP virus, including the church attendance restrictions.
A photo of Newsom, maskless and not social-distancing among a crowd of diners at the pricey French Laundry restaurant, was published Nov. 17 by Fox 11, sparking a public backlash.