Victory! California Removes Mandatory Indoor Capacity Restrictions and Congregational Worship Ban While Church-State Fights Continue

Sacramento, CA— On Friday, April 23, 2021, under growing legal pressure, California Governor Gavin Newsom suddenly and quietly, without any official announcement, lifted the indoor congregational singing and chanting ban, which had long been in place in various forms since July 1, 2020.  This big shift followed a similar a move on April 12, 2021, when Newsom finally capitulated and quietly changed the State Blueprint’s harsher 25% and 50% capacity limits imposed on places of worship from “mandatory” to “strongly recommended.”  The State’s website confirms that these significant moves were motivated by “recent court rulings.”  This means that California churches are now finally nearly totally free from the freedom-strangling restrictions they have endured over the past year, including the initial indefinite complete shut-down.

“In response to recent judicial rulings, effective immediately, location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory but are strongly recommended. Additionally, the restrictions on indoor singing and chanting are recommended only, and are consistent with the recommendations in the guidance on gatherings.”

-California, COVID-19 Industry Guidance

By “recent court rulings,” California was certainly referring to Tandon v Newsom, where the U.S. Supreme Court issued an epic legal smack down of both the 9th Circuit’s faulty legal analysis and California’s discriminatory church restrictions compared to secular businesses.  In Tandon, the Court found that Gov. Newsom’s tighter restrictions on home Bible Studies violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of the Free Exercise of Religion. Regarding the 9th Circuit, the majority complained, “This is the fifth time the Court has summarily rejected the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of California’s COVID restrictions on religious exercise.” Regarding California’s patently discriminatory COVID-19 schemes targeting religion, the Court opined, “It is unsurprising that such litigants are entitled to relief. California’s Blueprint System contains myriad exceptions and accommodations for comparable activities, thus requiring the application of strict scrutiny.”  Applying strict scrutiny, the Court found that the State’s disparate treatment of places of worship (and allegation that places of worship were more dangerous than secular locations) was not narrowly tailored to fulfill California’s purpose in slowing the virus’s spread. 

“While California’s lifting of the capacity limits and worship ban are indeed welcome, it is incredible that it took this long for Governor Newsom to see the handwriting on the wall,” stated Dean Broyles.  “It was clear back on November 25, 2020 when the Supreme Court issued its game-changing ruling in Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo that California’s draconian church restrictions were blatantly unconstitutional. California’s persisting religious antipathy and stubborn resistance towards people of faith is unique among many poor national examples.  Californians have endured a lot of unnecessary collateral damage, including spiritually,” continued Broyles. “If we are to remain a free people, we must never again allow a virus, or any other declared emergency, to suspend our fundamental constitutional rights.”    

While California’s legal capitulation is welcome, the fight is not over.  The National Center for Law and Policy (NCLP) on Friday filed an opening brief with the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit continuing to challenge church capacity limits Cornerstone Church v. Newsom (a.k.a. Cross Culture Christian Center v. Newsom).  The purpose of this appeal is to make sure that Gov. Newsom’s recent lifting of the capacity limits, who has a year-long track record of “moving the goal posts,” remains permanent.  On Thursday of last week we also filed a Second Amended Complaint in Calvary Chapel Ukiah v. Newsom, a case which continues to challenge California’s congregational worship ban.  The fight continues because, if there is another spike in infections, California could quickly reimpose unconstitutional religious restrictions (i.e. capacity limits and worship ban) if the State is not enjoined. 

The NCLP’s chief counsel, Dean Broyles, serves as co-counsel in Calvary Chapel Ukiah v. Newsom with attorneys from Advocates for Faith and Freedom (AFF) and the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ).  We also continue to serve as co-counsel in Calvary Chapel San Jose v. Cody (where Santa Clara County has fined our client more than 3 million dollars) and Word Aflame v. La Habra Heights (where the city harassed our clients, even though they were carefully following health protocols). 

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