They say, “The third time is the charm.” But for Christians in California, as it turns out, the fifth time is the charm.
The Golden State has lifted all of its capacity limits on in-person gatherings at houses of worship following a fifth straight loss at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Prior to the revision, the state was limiting capacity for indoor worship to 25% of building capacity or 100 attendees, whichever was lower.
Now, the new guidance from the state says, “Location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory but are strongly recommended.”
The revision comes just a few days after the Supreme Court struck down California’s prohibition on in-home worship services with people from more than three households.
In the 5-4 decision, the court said the state’s prohibition violated the First Amendment because it treated “some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise, permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants to bring together more than three households at a time.”
The ruling was California’s fifth straight loss at the high court regarding the state’s severe limitations on religious activities. It seems that the state finally got the message.
For a chronicle of California’s mandates limiting church capacity, guidance published by the California Department of Public Health on July 29, 2020 had ordered houses of worship to “discontinue indoor singing and chanting activities” in addition to imposing the capacity limits.
However, as California began experiencing a second wave of the COVID-19 cases late last year, the state moved to a new COVID-19 order titled “Blueprint to a Safer Economy.”
As The Daily Citizen previously reported, “On November 16, [the state] applied an ‘emergency brake’ that was built into the blueprint, and thereby pushed 94.1 percent of California’s population into the most stringent ‘Tier 1’ Purple Tier.
“Under the Purple Tier, houses of worship, which [the state] had deemed ‘non-essential,’ were permitted to hold services ‘outdoor only with modifications.’”
In other words, in-door worship was completely prohibited in nearly the entire state for several months until the Supreme Court ruled in February that completely prohibiting indoor worship was a violation of the First Amendment, because other secular establishments were permitted to open completely, including “liquor stores and cannabis dispensaries, all government offices, banks and credit unions, convenience stores and childcare services, among others.”
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in February, the state went back to imposing the 25% or 100-person capacity limit. Now, those mandatory limits are gone.
Of note, California’s prohibition on singing and chanting activities for indoor worship remains in place, after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to lift that portion of the state’s mandate in its February ruling.
In a statement on California’s decision to shift from “mandatory” to “strongly recommended” capacity limits, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said, “Fifth time’s the charm. That is how many rebukes by #SCOTUS it took for California to figure out that it should stop discriminating against religious worship. Worship is just as essential as shopping at Macy’s or going to the baseball game— and more so.”
Cases of COVID-19 in California have plummeted in the last few months. At its peak, the state recorded 64,987 new cases in one day on December 26, 2020. On April 12, 2021, the state recorded just 3,500 new cases, corresponding to a 95% drop.
With the hope that the COVID-19 pandemic is drawing to a close, we can all be thankful that houses of worship have reopened or are in the process of doing so. A national sense of religion is essential to the health of a society.
President George Washington reminded us of this when he wrote in his Farewell Address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
You can follow this author on Parler @ZacharyMettler