California Lifts Capacity Limits on Religious Gatherings Following Supreme Court Ruling

The court majority noted in an unsigned order that the state’s “three households” rule did not apply as strictly to secular indoor gatherings, such as indoor shopping or businesses such as nail salons, as it did to private religious gatherings at homes.

St. Patrick's Cathedral in San Francisco.
St. Patrick's Cathedral in San Francisco. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California lifted all capacity restrictions on religious gatherings on Monday, following the Supreme Court’s ruling over the weekend that the state’s restrictions were too harsh. 

“In response to recent judicial rulings, effective immediately, location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory but are strongly recommended,” the state announced on Monday.

The state’s guidelines still recommend that worship services be held outside in counties with the most severe spread of COVID-19. For other counties at lesser risk of COVID-19 transmission, the state recommends that indoor religious services be limited to 25% capacity or 50% capacity. 

Other health restrictions, such as masking and social distancing, still apply to gatherings. Singing and chanting is permitted, but performers are subject to mask and distancing restrictions; the severity of the restrictions depends on the local level of COVID-19 risk.

According to California’s color-coding system for COVID-19 risk in counties, “purple” counties are determined to be at “widespread” risk of the virus; “red” counties are at “substantial” risk, “orange” counties at “moderate” risk, and “yellow” counties at “minimal” risk. Two counties are coded purple and two are yellow, with 22 counties labeled red and 32 counties labeled orange. 

The California Department of Public Health guidance on preventing virus transmission at gatherings, updated in November 2020, now adds that “limits will not be enforced to the extent that they have been enjoined by a court.”

In February, the Supreme Court ruled against the state’s near-total ban on indoor religious services, saying that the state could at most limit such services to 25% capacity.

Previously, the state limited indoor gatherings at homes to a maximum of three households. After residents sued to overturn the capacity limits for private Bible studies, the Supreme Court ruled on April 9 that the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court should have granted an injunction blocking the policy. 

The court majority noted in an unsigned order that the state’s “three households” rule did not apply as strictly to secular indoor gatherings - such as indoor shopping or businesses such as nail salons - as it did to private religious gatherings at homes.

“Where the government permits other activities to proceed with precautions, it must show that the religious exercise at issue is more dangerous than those activities even when the same precautions are applied,” said the court’s majority opinion in the 5-4 decision. “Otherwise, precautions that suffice for other activities suffice for religious exercise too.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, dissented from the majority opinion. 

Justice Kagan, writing a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, stated that the state had treated religious and secular gatherings fairly.

“California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households. If the State also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment,” Kagan said. “And the State does exactly that: It has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike.”

U.S. Supreme Court Building

Good News for California Churches and Boston Catholic Schools

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued an important ruling that California’s ban on indoor worship and singing in churches — worship-targeting — is unconstitutional. We talk to EWTN News’ legal analyst Andrea Picciotti-Bayer about the ramifications of the High Court’s decision, and what lies ahead for religious freedom in the country. And then, Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Boston “followed the science” and have kept its students safe amid the pandemic. We are joined by Thomas Carroll, superintendent for the Archdiocese of Boston schools about good news and the many challenges facing Catholic schools.