Supreme Court Lifts California Ban on Indoor Worship as Pastors Mark Year of Turmoil and Sacrifice

Catholic bishops and pastors respond to the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling Feb. 5 to allow indoor services, including Mass, amid the pandemic.

Priests celebrate Mass for the 40th Anniversary Jubilee on Jan 30, 2021 at Our Lady of Peace in San Jose.
Priests celebrate Mass for the 40th Anniversary Jubilee on Jan 30, 2021 at Our Lady of Peace in San Jose. (photo: Jen Vazquez Photography / Diocese of San Jose)

MENLO PARK, Calif. — When Msgr. Steven Otellini, the pastor of Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park, California, learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had lifted the state’s ban on indoor worship, he quickly informed his parishioners that Sunday Mass the following week would resume inside the historic church, with outdoor seating available as well.

After almost a year of shifting pandemic regulations, with services moving inside and outside three different times, along with an altar, sound system and socially distanced seating, the pastor has mastered the quick pivot. At the same time, he welcomed the high court’s ruling and expressed hope that it augured a period of stability.

“At least now there is some clarity as to how far the state can go when it places restrictions on religious services,” Msgr. Otellini told the Register. “That is a good thing.”

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who launched a #FreeTheMass campaign to challenge overly restrictive public-health rules governing religious services, also expressed his “relief” at the news.

“What the court’s decision changes is that we can worship indoors without harassment,” Archbishop Cordileone told the Register. “It does not change the science. And that means my previous instruction to priests remains in place: Pastors must decide what is best, with safety as a major consideration.”

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling Feb. 5 in a pair of cases brought by California churches based in Chula Vista and Pasadena produced four different statements from the justices and marked a turning point for Chief Justice John Roberts, who had sided with the court’s liberal wing in previous legal challenges to COVID-related worship restrictions from Nevada, California and New York. 

This time, Roberts was skeptical of California’s justification for barring indoor worship, in a concurrence that rejected a full ban, but said the state’s objections to singing and chanting during worship services could stand.

“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,” Roberts wrote. “Deference, though broad, has its limits.”

Justices Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas were prepared to go farther than their colleagues, dismissing the need for a ban on singing and chanting.

“Even if a full congregation singing hymns is too risky, California does not explain why even a single masked cantor cannot lead worship behind a mask and a plexiglass shield,” wrote Gorsuch. “If Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, in a brief opinion joined by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, agreed that the ban should be overturned but said the two churches still needed to offer evidence that the state had unfairly targeted singing in religious services. 

The dissenting liberal justices argued that it was wrong for the court to challenge the judgment of public-health officials in the middle of a pandemic.

“In the worst public-health crisis in a century,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, “this foray into armchair epidemiology cannot end well.”

The court’s latest finding on public-health rules governing worship arrives as the nation nears the first anniversary of the pandemic and takes a harder look at its response to a public-health crisis that has resulted in the deaths of more than 400,000 Americans. 

The high court clearly signaled it will be less deferential to state authorities, building on its narrow 5-4 decision in November that struck down New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order limiting the size of religious gatherings in areas where the virus was surging. 

In that case, Roberts joined the dissenting liberal wing, expressing his disinclination “to override determinations made by public-health officials.”

Teresa Collett, a professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School, agreed with the court’s rulings in the California and New York cases and said Roberts’ newfound skepticism made sense.

“Religion has a unique place in the constitutional structure,” noted Collett.

“But if you accept the position that public-health officials know best, and you take that standard and generalize it, the Constitution would be put on hold until these officials sound the all clear.” 

Gerard Bradley, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, noted that while Roberts has become more skeptical of blanket rules for worship with “zero” exceptions, Justices Gorsuch, Alito and Thomas have become increasingly “wary of public officials and how they are treating religion during the pandemic.” 

The three justices “have closely inspected the entirety of a state’s regulatory framework, to see if religion is being treated in a less favorable way than comparable secular operations,” Bradley told the Register 

“In this most recent case they identified an apparent preference by California for the Hollywood entertainment industry, compared to churches.”  

He also flagged their trenchant summary of evolving state controls over public interactions during this period: “Government actors have been moving the goalposts on pandemic-related sacrifices for months, adopting new benchmarks that always seem to put restoration of liberty just around the corner.”  

Mark Rienzi, the president of Becket, the public interest group that filed an amicus brief in the California case and previously represented EWTN, the Register’s parent company, in its legal challenge to the HHS contraceptive mandate, said the chief justice and his five conservative colleagues were also responsive to the latest data on the actual risks posed by indoor worship services that adhere to Centers for Disease Control protocols.

“What we have seen in the later phase of the pandemic, as we have come to understand the virus more, is that churches turn out not to be places that pose a big risk of spread,” said Rienzi.

Still, he agreed that a majority of the justices clearly understood that the defense of freedoms protected under the Constitution served as an important check on government overreach. Many states have respected these freedoms, as they navigate a cascade of crises sparked by the pandemic, he confirmed. But for some it is “easier to get rid of civil liberties than police them.”

In California, the state’s response to the pandemic has sparked a similar debate over the limits of the public’s deference to public-health edicts, and Catholic leaders in the Golden State have played a significant role in that discussion.

Early on, the state’s rapid lockdown earned praise for stemming transmissions. However, subsequent waves of COVID-19 cases, along with controversial rules that had closed outdoor restaurant dining but allowed Hollywood film crews to operate, have provoked unexpected pushback. Now a petition campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom is nearing the required 1.5 million signatures to put the matter to a vote.

Local officials are also struggling to keep pace with a shifting political landscape. In San Francisco, where the city attorney had aggressively enforced strict rules governing religious services last summer, that city official is now suing the San Francisco Unified School District in a bid to force a return to in-person instruction in shuttered classrooms. 

Throughout much of this period, California’s bishops have pressed state authorities to modify restrictions on worship, while keeping CDC protocols front and center, Bishop Oscar Cantú of San Jose, told the Register.

Bishop Cantú’s own diocese is based in Santa Clara County, which has maintained more restrictive public-health measures than some parts of the state. And he recalled one outdoor Mass this winter where the temperature hovered at 34 degrees, and the mostly-elderly congregants were bundled up, trying to stay warm. 

He shared this experience with a county public-health official to help her understand the “hardships” his flock was enduring. 

“I wanted her to know we were concerned about their emotional and physical needs, as well as their spiritual needs,” he explained.

The official, he said, was “sympathetic, but unbudging.”

Bishop Cantú was thus relieved when the Supreme Court lifted the ban on indoor worship. But after the high court’s ruling, he was notified by the county that the decision did not apply to its own public-health guidelines because they implemented “across the board” restrictions on public gatherings and did not single out religious worship.  

A district court initially issued a stay permitting religious services to move indoors in the county at 20% capacity. A few days later the district court reversed its decision, pending further review. 

Father Brian Dinkel, pastor of Our Lady of Peace in Santa Clara, one of the most vibrant parishes in the diocese, had welcomed the reprieve from the justices and hoped indoor services would be restored soon.

But he also observed that the hardships he and his flock have endured have borne spiritual fruit.

“There is a succinct Spanish phrase that captures it very well,” he said. “La cruz fecunda cuanto toca, which might be translated as ‘The cross makes fruitful whatever it touches.’”  

“The natural discomfort and anxiety that has accompanied us through these past months has demanded more from us,” he observed. 

He has been “edified” by the long lines of parishioners waiting for confession in the church’s parking lot and the men and women “kneeling in the cold night air, on the concrete, or in the muddy grass — literally through wind and rain — in order to maintain our decades-long commitment to perpetual Eucharistic adoration.” 

“All of us have come to a greater understanding that the sacraments are truly a gift from God,” the pastor concluded. “They are a fundamental right from a civil perspective, but from the divine perspective, a gift.”

This story was updated after posting.