Supreme Court Orders ‘Extreme Outlier’ County in California to Lift Ban on Indoor Worship

Friday night’s order from Justice Elena Kagan followed a Feb. 5 Supreme Court ruling that effectively required the state to lift bans on indoor worship.

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph in San Jose, California
The Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph in San Jose, California (photo: Allie Caulfield / Flickr/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

Friday night, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an unsigned order that required Santa Clara County, reportedly the last county in the country that barred indoor worship, to lift its ban.

Bishop Oscar Cantú of San Jose, California, located in Santa Clara County, welcomed the news.

“I join all Catholics and people of faith in Santa Clara County in expressing our satisfaction in tonight’s U.S. Supreme Court decision rejecting Santa Clara County’s ban on indoor worship services,” he said in a statement. “Santa Clara was the only county in the country to continue such a ban. Banning indoor worship and yet allowing people to gather at airports, personal services establishments, and retail shopping is unconstitutional — and the Supreme Court has said so several times.”

Bishop Cantú confirmed that the diocese had worked with Becket, the public interest group, to file a friend-of-the-court brief in a lawsuit brought by several local Protestant Churches over the past week. 

“We are grateful to San Jose’s Gateway City Church and The Spectrum Church, Campbell’s The Home Church and Orchard Community Church and Morgan Hill’s Trinity Bible Church for their efforts to uphold our right to worship in Santa Clara County, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution,” said the bishop, who noted that parishes, missions and chapels in the diocese would not be able to resume indoor worship services at up to 20% capacity, “but only if and when each parish can safely do so following all masking, social distancing, and sanitization protocols.”

Friday night’s order from Justice Elena Kagan followed a Feb. 5 ruling in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, which effectively required the state to lift bans on indoor worship. At the time, as the Register reported, Santa Clara County argued that the court’s ruling did not apply to its public health directives because they did not single out religious worship and had broad application.

But the Diocese of San Jose argued otherwise in its amicus brief filed with the high court on Feb. 24.

“Diocese’s members are essential workers at grocery stores, hospitals, and nursing homes. They have gone to work day-in, day-out, during the entire course of the pandemic,” read the brief.

“Yet for long stretches of the past year these Catholics have been denied the solace of going to church. The Diocese seeks to file the proposed amicus brief to bring to the Court’s attention the fact that the County’s complete ban on indoor worship is an extreme outlier, both nationally and within the State of California. In the wake of this Court’s decision in South Bay II, no state — and, to the Diocese’s knowledge, none of the other over 80,000 local governments in the United States — bans worship outright.”

For a summary of the Supreme Court’s orders on this and related cases from California, click here.

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]