Even though the First Amendment clearly protects religious liberty, California continues to stymie churches’ efforts to reopen amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
On August 28, Governor Newsom announced a new statewide reopening plan, which replaced the previous county monitoring list. Under the new system, each county will be classified under one of four tiers. Each tier has a corresponding color that designates the county’s coronavirus risk level, which is based on the number of new coronavirus cases per day and the percentage of positive tests. Purple counties (widespread risk level) have more than seven new cases per day (per every 100,000) and more than eight percent positive tests. Red counties (substantial risk level) have four to seven new cases per day (per every 100,000) and five to eight percent positive tests. Orange counties (moderate risk level) have one to 3.9 new cases per day (per every 100,000) and two to 4.9 percent positive tests. Yellow counties (minimal risk level) have less than one new case per day (per every 100,000) and less than two percent positive tests.
Unfortunately, California’s new system fails to adequately prioritize the First Amendment rights of its churches and congregations. As of the Governor’s announcement on Friday, 38 of the state’s 58 counties (approximately 87 percent of the population) were in the highly restrictive purple tier. In these counties, churches are not allowed to hold indoor services. In red counties (currently nine counties), churches may hold indoor services, but they may only admit up to 25 percent of their building’s capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer. Churches in orange counties (currently nine counties) may also hold indoor services but must limit attendance to 50 percent of building capacity or 200 people, whichever is fewer. Churches in yellow counties may admit up to 50 percent of their building’s capacity, but only two counties, Modoc and Alpine Counties, are currently classified under this tier. According to industry guidance (current as of July 29), all churches have been ordered to “discontinue indoor singing and chanting activities.”
In addition to statewide restrictions preventing churches from resuming in-person services, California churches are also facing opposition at the local level. Los Angeles County’s Grace Community Church resumed in-person services on July 26. After the County threatened the church with civil and criminal penalties for continued violations of the County’s prohibition on indoor worship services, the church filed a lawsuit against Governor Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and other public officials. The County tried—and failed—four times to obtain court orders that would force the church to cease holding in-person services. On August 28, in another attempt to prevent the church from reopening, the County “terminat[ed] the church’s lease on a large portion of [its] parking lot.”
Grace Community Church is not alone in its struggle to reopen. In Ventura County, a judge held Godspeak Calvary Chapel and its pastor, Rob McCoy, in contempt of court. He fined the church $3,000 for holding indoor services in violation of a temporary restraining order that mandated compliance with the County’s prohibition on such services. And in Santa Clara County, North Valley Baptist Church has been fined over $52,000 for continuing to hold in-person services.
As churches in California and across the country consider reopening, they should make every effort to reopen safely by taking reasonable precautions and following common-sense guidelines. It is high time that California allows them to do so.
Kaitlyn Shepherd is a legal intern with Policy & Government Affairs at Family Research Council.