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Supreme Court rejects challenge to limits on church services

Earlier this week, California churches were given the green light to resume in-person services but the congregations will be limited to less than 100.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — WASHINGTON (AP) — A divided Supreme Court has rejected an emergency appeal by a California church that challenged state limits on attendance at worship services that have been imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus. 

Over the dissent of the four more conservative justices, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s four liberals in turning away a request from the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California, in the San Diego area. 

The church argued that limits on how many people can attend their services violate constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and had been seeking an order in time for services on Sunday. The church said it has crowds of 200 to 300 people for its services.

Roberts wrote in brief opinion that the restriction allowing churches to reopen at 25% of their capacity, with no more than 100 worshipers at a time, “appear consistent" with the First Amendment. Roberts said similar or more severe limits apply to concerts, movies and sporting events “where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in dissent that the restriction “discriminates against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses. Such discrimination violates the First Amendment.” Kavanaugh pointed to supermarkets, restaurants, hair salons, cannabis dispensaries and other businesses that are not subject to the same restrictions.

Lower courts in California had previously turned down the churches' requests.

The court also rejected an appeal from two churches in the Chicago area that objected to Gov. Jay Pritzker’s limit of 10 worshipers at religious services. Before the court acted, Pritzker modified the restrictions to allow for up to 100 people at a time. There were no recorded dissents.

Earlier this week, California churches were given the green light to resume in-person services but the congregations will be limited to less than 100. Worshippers are being told to wear masks, avoid sharing prayer books and skip the collection plate. 

The state released a framework Monday for county health officials to permit houses of worship to reopen. Most have been limited to online and remote services since March, when Gov. Gavin Newsom’ issued a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

Newsom has been relaxing those restrictions for restaurants and other businesses. Several thousand churches had vowed to defy Newsom’s order next Sunday. 

A federal judge rejected a rural Nevada church’s request Friday for an emergency injunction that would allow it to exceed Gov. Steve Sisolak’s 50-person cap on religious gatherings. 

Calvary Chapel in Dayton, southeast of Reno, filed a lawsuit last week arguing the previous ban on religious gatherings of more than 10 people was unconstitutional. 

Sisolak raised the limit to 50 people when he announced this week the reopening of several business categories previously considered non-essential.

Church leaders say the new limit still violates their religious freedom under the First Amendment.

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