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Some California churches reopen after Supreme Court lifts ban on indoor services

Some California churches reopened their doors for services Sunday after the Supreme Court ruled last week that the state’s orders prohibiting indoor services during the pandemic appeared to violate the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion.

“This is not just our 1st Amendment rights, it’s really our biblical mandate not to forsake assembling with the saints,” Ché Ahn, senior pastor of Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, told congregants during Sunday services.

The state’s ban on indoor services was challenged in separate lawsuits by Harvest Rock Church and the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, and Friday’s order applied directly to them. But its legal logic would block enforcement of a similar ban at other churches.

Bishop Arthur Hodges, senior pastor at South Bay United Pentecostal Church, said he was “declaring a great victory.” The church had continued to hold indoor services despite the state’s rule, but Sunday was the first time in months that it was able to do so legally.

“This is a giant step forward in affirming that Americans should never be forced to have to choose between obeying God or their government,” Hodges said during Sunday’s service.

Other churches were still working out what the Supreme Court ruling meant for them.

On Saturday, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles issued a statement giving parishes the option of returning to indoor worship services that “limit attendance to 25% capacity.” Up until now, services have been held in accordance with county and state requirements.

But because the archdiocese includes Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties — and each county has issued its own restrictions on public gatherings — parishes have developed their own accommodations that meet the needs of their congregants.

In Los Angeles County, for instance, the Department of Public Health released a revised order late December that allowed indoor worship services as long as masking and physical distancing protocols were followed. (The state’s lawyers told the Supreme Court that despite the move, the county did not have the authority to waive the state’s rules.)

The archdiocese is still reviewing the court’s ruling, but spokeswoman Adrian Marquez Alarcon said Sunday that most churches have continued to conduct outdoor services where capacity is less limited.

“Outside there is more space for social distancing,” she said. “Pastors are taking into consideration what their communities of faith need and what they feel comfortable with.”

Father Ricardo Viveros of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Atwater Village has been holding both indoor and outdoor mass since the end of December when the county eased its restrictions.

“I’m something of a hybrid, and I want people to be comfortable,” he said. “But more are wanting to go back inside and are feeling more comfortable about that.”

With social distancing, his church can accommodate 90 congregants inside, and if more show up, they stand in the front courtyard. The priests and deacons step outside to deliver communion.

In the court’s ruling on Friday, the six conservative justices in the majority agreed that California had singled out churches for unfair treatment by putting more stringent restrictions on them than on some businesses.

The justices granted an appeal from South Bay United, which has repeatedly challenged the state restrictions on church services, including its ban on singing and chanting. The ruling set aside decisions by federal judges in San Diego and San Bernardino, and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which upheld the state’s orders despite earlier warnings from the high court.

But the high court said the state may limit attendance at indoor services to 25% of a building’s capacity, and singing and chanting may be restricted as well.

San Bernardino and Ventura counties both said they would follow state guidelines and…

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