Indoor Singing and Chanting Can Be Prohibited at Church Gatherings in Calif., Supreme Court Rules

The U.S. Supreme Court handed two California churches a partial victory late on Friday when the majority ruled against a state ban on indoor worship but the court declined to strike down other restrictions on religious observance.

The court's conservative majority found against a California rule that banned all indoor worship in Tier 1 counties, those most affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the state. The cases were taken by South Bay United Pentecostal Church near San Diego and Harvest International Ministry in Pasadena.

However, the justices upheld other COVID-19 restrictions, including a ban on singing and chanting and a capacity limit of 25 percent, which currently applies to many indoor venues in the state.

The court's main ruling came in the South Bay United Pentecostal Church case and the justices issued a similar ruling in the second suit.

The conservatives were divided on the matter, with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas writing that they would have lifted all the restrictions on the churches.

"Even if a full congregation singing hymns is too risky, California does not explain why even a single masked cantor cannot lead worship behind a mask and a plexiglass shield," Gorsuch wrote.

"Or why even a lone muezzin may not sing the call to prayer from a remote location inside a mosque as worshippers file in," the justice said.

"If Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California's churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry," Gorsuch wrote.

Justice Samuel Alito said he would also have supported lifting the restrictions but would have given California 30 days to make representations to the court on the matter.

Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh disagreed with their conservative colleagues, as did Chief Justice John Roberts. Roberts has previously deferred to state authorities on COVID-19 measures but wrote for the majority in lifting the ban on indoor services.

"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.

"Deference, though broad, has its limits," the chief justice said.

The three liberals - Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor - dissented from the majority, with Kagan penning their opinion.

"Justices of this court are not scientists," she wrote. "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 Supreme Court's rulings only apply to the churches that took suit against California though others could use the decisions to appeal against the state's restrictions.

The US Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
The US Supreme Court is seen in Washington, D.C., on December 7, 2020. The court partially lifted California's restrictions on religious services. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images