Pasadena church wins right to worship indoors amid pandemic

A Pasadena-based church is celebrating a legal victory after the U.S. Supreme Court granted a partial injunction against California's prohibition against indoor worship services to help limit the spread of coronavirus.

On a 6-3 vote late Friday, the court cited the Constitution's protection of the free exercise of religion and ruled that "regulations like these violate the First Amendment unless the State can show they are the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest.''

It came in response to filings on behalf of Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry, which has more than 160 churches across the state, and 600-seat South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista.

"It's such amazing news to hear -- the end of our lawsuit against Governor Newsom. We held fast to the constitution and the Supreme Court agrees,'' Harvest Rock Church senior pastor Che Ahn tweeted Saturday. "Thank you for all of your prayers. We'll continue with the war of overturning Roe v. Wade and will see justice prevail!''

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that federal courts owe "significant deference'' to politically accountable officials in public health matters, but said that deference has its limits.

"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.

The ruling did leave in place a 25% capacity restriction and a prohibition on singing and chanting.

"The state has concluded, for example, that singing indoors poses a heightened risk of transmitting Covid-19,'' Roberts wrote. "I see no basis in this record for overriding that aspect of the state public health framework.''

The decision reflected the court's current ideological divide with six conservative justices in favor of the partial injunction and the three liberals dissenting.

RELATED: US Supreme Court sides with Pasadena church over COVID-19 restrictions

"Justices of this court are not scientists,'' Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote in dissent to the majority ruling. "Nor do we know much about public health policy. Yet today the court displaces the judgments of experts about how to respond to a raging pandemic.''

The ruling was the latest in a series of high-profile emergency requests to the nation's highest court seeking guidance on the question of whether health orders aimed at containing COVID-19 apply to churches and other houses of worship.

In a similar case in New York, the court ruled 5-4 on Nov. 25 in favor of a challenge to coronavirus-related restrictions by  houses of worship in that state.

Last year, South Bay United Pentecostal Church was repeatedly denied preliminary injunctions against the state health orders by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, prompting the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Similarly, a federal appeals court turned down Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry's bid for an emergency pre-Christmas ruling
after the Supreme Court directed the lower courts to reconsider the matter.

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California's regional stay-at-home orders have prohibited indoor activities across a broad range of industries, but does allow for outdoor religious services.

Representatives for South Bay and Harvest Rock have argued that outdoor worship or those held by video-conferencing are "inadequate substitutes'' for in-person gatherings and that the public health orders prohibit the church "from holding the services mandated by scripture.''

They have also argued that California has arbitrarily allowed certain sectors considered essential to stay open and conduct indoor operations, while discriminating against religious institutions.

Harvest Rock Church did not immediately announce whether it planned to hold indoor services on Sunday.