The American legal and political approach to pandemic-era religious gatherings seems to be anything but consistent as Christmas bears down on churches.
Challenges to previously approved restrictions on worship attendance are being upheld even as U.S. deaths speed toward 320,000 and intensive care units fill to capacity. The latest surge of confusion began with a Thanksgiving Eve U.S. Supreme Court decision temporarily blocking attendance limits on houses of worship in New York.
The Nov. 25 ruling, plus another involving religious groups in Colorado and New Jersey, have led municipalities in other states to ease worship restrictions even as their own hospitals are overwhelmed with new COVID-19 cases.
“As 13,756 new cases reported on Saturday, Dec. 19, pushed Los Angeles County’s total past the sad milestone of 600,000 since the pandemic began — public health officials announced they are modifying stay-home orders to allow for indoor and outdoor worship, in response to recent Supreme Court rulings,” the Los Angeles Daily News reported.
It also noted that nearly 5,500 patients were being treated for the virus in area hospitals, with 21% of them in ICU units. This as Rose Bowl officials were contemplating moving the historic college football game out-of-state due to seating limitations imposed by the state due to the pandemic.
Yet, even as restrictions for religious groups have been relaxed to permit indoor worship, the LA Daily News also said authorities urge congregations to exercise caution: “Despite the modification, public health officials were still ‘strongly’ recommending that such services be held outside, with physical distancing and masked-up worshipers.”
The newspaper also reported that Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, and its pastor, John MacArthur, had declared victory in the New York Supreme Court ruling and a different California case. The church and pastor have been waging court battles over attendance restrictions.
The paper wrote: “Then, earlier this month, a higher authority weighed in. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered California lower courts to reconsider worship restrictions after Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena challenged the state’s orders on grounds they violated the First Amendment ‘Free Exercise’ protection.”
The Christian Post reported that Grace Community Church now has its own outbreak of the virus but MacArthur’s members were being urged not to report the outbreak in their ranks.
Meanwhile, a faith-based blog and the Christian Post reported that Grace Community Church now has its own outbreak of the virus but MacArthur’s members were being urged not to report the outbreak in their ranks.
Contradictions between the legal and medical developments have been mirrored at the high court level, as well. In May, the justices ruled 5-4 to allow California Gov. Gavin Newsom to limit worship attendance as a way of limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
But the bench at that time still included Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal who voted with the narrow majority in that case. She died in September and was quickly replaced by Amy Coney Barrett, who was part of the slim conservative majority that voted 5-4 last month against New York’s restrictions.
In its order, the court said New York’s limits on religious gatherings — 10 people in “red” zones and 25 in “orange” zones — unfairly held houses of worship to a standard more strict than businesses.
“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 majority justices said. “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”
Observers have noted this case marks a sharp turn in the Supreme Court’s direction. “I would agree with those people who say it’s a different court, and they wanted to make a statement that it’s a different court. That’s the statement they’re making, I understand that,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a CNN report.
But there also is evidence the court can be of two minds on the issue of faith and public health. It issued an order Dec. 17 denying a Kentucky Christian school’s request not to be included in the governor’s closure of K-12 schools due to the spike in the pandemic.
Danville Christian Academy had argued it should be treated like private businesses permitted to remain open with lower occupancies. That request was denied because Gov. Andy Beshear’s order was set to expire. But the justices left the door open for the plaintiffs.
“Under all of the circumstances, especially the timing and the impending expiration of the order, we deny the application without prejudice to the applicants or other parties seeking a new preliminary injunction if the governor issues a school-closing order that applies in the new year,” the justices said.
In the United States, the pandemic is nothing if not contradictory.
In the United States, the pandemic is nothing if not contradictory. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has ordered smaller social gatherings but rejected a mask mandate even as his state leads the nation in new coronavirus cases, according to the Nashville Tennessean.
Congress reportedly has broken its stalemate over COVID-19 relief by agreeing to almost $900 billion in payments and other assistance to American workers and businesses — but omitted funds for first responders and teachers experiencing pandemic-induced hardships.
And even as vaccines are arriving at locations around the nation, the coronavirus is surging, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“COVID-19 cases and deaths are rising across the United States,” a CDC statement said. “We all must remain vigilant. The changes we have had to make to routines and daily life are extremely hard, but these changes are even more important now and in the future.”
Why you should cancel your in-person indoor Christmas Eve service | Mark Wingfield