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By Mike Hazlip—
Local churches are resuming in-person services amid a drop in COVID-19 hospitalizations and a recent Supreme Court ruling allowing congregations to reopen indoors.
The latest statistics from Sacramento County Public Health show a consistent decline in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU cases since mid-January. Currently, the county reports 250 hospitalized cases with 73 in ICU, down from a peak of more than 500 hospitalizations last month with more than 100 in ICU.
The United States Supreme Court granted a partial injunction against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on indoor services last week. The court issued a 6-3 ruling Friday in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom. The ruling strikes down the state’s prohibitions against indoor religious services but leaves in place the limits on capacity set forth in the state’s guidelines, and also allows bans on singing and chanting.
Craig Sweeney, lead pastor of Heights Church on Sylvan Road, told The Sentinel in an email Monday that worship services will reopen indoors beginning Feb. 21, a decision he announced on social media before last week’s court ruling. He said the decision to reopen was based on the needs of his congregation, and was not a political statement.
“I want to be clear, I do not see the closing of in-person services as an attempt to encroach on our religious freedoms because other gatherings such as schools, sports and many other sectors of our society have been shut down as well,” he said. “I also want to be clear that our reasoning for opening is not meant to be a statement of defiance of the orders, nor is it a political statement of any kind. We are opening in order to help people with their needs that are desperate.”
For Sweeney, the drop in case numbers means the needs of the congregation now outweigh the risks. Still, he is relieved by the Supreme Court ruling as he prepares to open the church’s doors.
“Now with the Supreme Court’s ruling from this last Friday allowing churches to open in California we are not having to concern ourselves with whether our opening coincides with moving from Purple to Red Tiers,” he said.
Sweeney said Heights Church, formerly known as Bayside Church of Citrus Heights, has complied with the state’s guidelines for the last year “without exception, because it matters to us that we do our part.”
Heights Church will be limiting the total number of parishioners and taking precautions such as temperature checks and cleaning common areas, Sweeney said. The church will also continue streaming online services.
Also on The Sentinel: Proposed future church site in Citrus Heights has not-so-holy past
Messiah Lutheran Church in Citrus Heights also announced a return to indoor services, beginning February 14.
“We’re going back inside. Bring your mask and sanitizer. We will have social distance seating,” the announcement read. A prior statement from March of last year indicates Messiah Lutheran has been closed since that time.
“As good stewards and responsible people of God, we have decided to comply to make every effort to keep our members and friends safe. We pray you do as well with your families and friends. thank you for your understanding,” the announcement said. “Please stay in the Word using your Bible and your Portals of Prayer during this interim and pray this ends soon.”
The state has since issued revised guidelines in light of Friday’s ruling.
“In response to recent judicial rulings, the interim capacity limits below are effective immediately. The linked guidance is in the process of being updated. All other restrictions in the guidance remain in place,” the state’s COVID-19 website says.
Under the new guidelines, indoor religious services are now allowed in all tiers. The Purple and Red Tiers restrict capacity to 25%, while a 50% capacity is allowed in Orange and Yellow Tiers. The guidelines apply to all religious services including churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples. Cultural ceremonies, including weddings, are also included in the announcement.
Friday’s ruling comes after Chula Vista based South Bay United Pentecostal Church filed an application for injunctive relief last year. Other churches have opted to ignore the ban on indoor worship, some facing fines while others have not seen enforcement action.
Chief Justice John Roberts said he found the governor’s guidelines did not fully consider the impact on religious gatherings.
“At the same time, the State’s present determination—that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero—appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake,” he wrote.
Justice Neil Gorsuch joined Roberts in saying California did not justify its ban on indoor religious services, while allowing other types of public activities.
“Nor, again, does California explain why the narrower options it thinks adequate in many secular settings— such as social distancing requirements, masks, cleaning, plexiglass barriers, and the like—cannot suffice here,” he wrote. “Especially when those measures are in routine use in religious services across the country today.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justices Elena Kagan, Steven Breyer and Sonya Sotomayor said the ruling unfairly allows religious services, while other gatherings such as political rallies, lectures, and theaters remain restricted.
“In any event, the result is clear: The State may not treat worship services like activities found to pose a comparable COVID risk, such as political meetings or lectures. Instead, the State must treat this one communal gathering like activities thought to pose a much lesser COVID risk, such as running in and out of a hardware store,” the dissenting opinion reads.
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