Federal court partially OKs California’s number limits

By Maura Dolan
Los Angeles Times/TNS

SAN FRANCISCO -  A federal appeals court on Monday struck down California coronavirus rules limiting indoor church attendance to specific numbers but allowed the state to continue to ban indoor worship during times of widespread infection.

In a brief order, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out rules that limited indoor attendance to 100 and to 200 people when a county has been placed in the second and third tiers for coronavirus risk.

California’s blueprint for reopening has prevented indoor worship in counties where the coronavirus was widespread but limited attendance to specific numbers in counties with fewer infections.

The case was brought by Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church, which asked the appeals court to overturn a district judge’s ruling in December in favor of the state.

The 9th Circuit was bound by a November U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down rules limiting indoor attendance at places of worship in New York to a specific number, without taking into account the size of the building.

From now on, the 9th Circuit said, restrictions on indoor worship when infections are not widespread should be based on a percentage of the church’s capacity as set by fire codes.

The court left in place a pandemic ban on singing and chanting during indoor worship. Singing is known to spread the virus more easily.

The panel consisted of Judges Diarmuid O’Scannlain, a Reagan appointee; Johnie B. Rawlinson, a Clinton appointee; and Morgan Christen, an Obama appointee.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision striking down the coronavirus rules for places of worship marked a departure from the high court’s previous willingness to allow governors and health officers to set attendance rules during the pandemic.

The change of stance stemmed from the replacement of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Justice Amy Coney Barrett, an appointee of former President Donald Trump.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate infringes on the religious liberty of religiously motivated corporations.

California’s COVID-19 rules place counties in one of four tiers, ranging from Tier 1 for widespread risk to Tier 4 for minimal spread of the virus. Each tier carries some restrictions, with the most severe in Tier 1.

Harvest Rock, which has affiliate campuses in Corona, Santa Ana and downtown L.A., has been holding indoor services despite the health orders.

Monday’s decision followed another 9th Circuit ruling late Friday afternoon that set the same rules for South Bay United Pentecostal Church, which had also challenged the state virus rules.

In that case, a different panel of judges determined that the state had presented substantial evidence showing that indoor worship was unsafe in counties where the virus was widespread.

The panel also said the ban on indoor singing and chanting did not discriminate against religion because it applied to “all indoor activities, sectors and private gatherings.”

Harvest Rock may appeal Monday’s decision to a larger 9th Circuit panel or to the Supreme Court.

Harvest Rock Church, pictured, on Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020 in Pasadena, Ca.