Imbedded in its news release on Saturday Los Angeles County public health officials reluctantly slightly modified its ban on indoor church services while still maintaining a tight grip on worshippers’ behavior while doing so.
It blamed its modification on recent Supreme Court decisions: “The … order will be modified today to align with recent Supreme Court rulings for places of worship.”
But major restrictions remain in place:
Places of worship are permitted to offer faith-based services both indoors and outdoors [but] with mandatory physical distancing and face coverings over both the nose and mouth that must be worn at all times while on site.
Places of worship must also assure that attendance does not exceed the number of people who can be accommodated while maintaining a physical distance of six feet between separate households.
The press release didn’t mention the court cases that forced its hand. The first olive out of the bottle was the case of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. [New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo. The Supreme Court ruled:
Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten….
The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.
The second and third olives came out of the bottle a little easier: Robinson v. [New Jersey Governor Chris] Murphy, and High plains Harvest Church v. [Colorado Governor Jared] Polis. In each case the high court ruled that restrictions placed on worshippers by the two governors were unconstitutional.
The stage was set at the California state level earlier this month when a Catholic priest, Father Trevor Burfitt, who oversees multiple churches in California, sued the state over similar restrictions. The judge, Gregory Pulskamp of the Superior Court of California for Kern County, wrote:
The free exercise of religion clause in the California Constitution prohibits Defendants from treating religious activities worse than comparable secular activities. California’s current Covid-related restrictions do exactly that.
This Court is not in a position to rewrite the restrictions or dictate to Defendants specifically how the restrictions may be cured. However, the Court is in a position to prohibit enforcement of the restrictions against Plaintiff pending trial, and rules accordingly.
Freedoms lost are rarely and only with great difficulty fully restored. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health kept its heavy hand on the behavior of worshippers now being permitted to worship indoors. Staff and worshippers must wear face coverings at all times and stay six feet away from each other. The churches must continue to conduct screenings before allowing anyone to enter, and church staff must disinfect all indoor facilities between services.
In addition, drinking from a common communion cup or eating from the same piece of bread is prohibited. And all communion services must be held outdoors, with worshippers allowed to remove their masks briefly and then immediately replacing them afterwards.
Just so the message was clearly received, the LA public health officials are not at all happy about having to follow the high court’s rulings. It reiterated is previous edicts:
Stay at home as much as possible, do not mingle with others, and do not travel. Always wear a face covering, keep distance from others, frequently wash hands, and limit all non-essential activities.