Newsom Backs Down on Church Crackdown Following Supreme Court Smackdown

California lifts worship restrictions after string of legal defeats

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April 13, 2021

Embattled Democratic governor Gavin Newsom (Calif.) will once again allow worshippers to attend church, but they better keep quiet, according to new coronavirus restrictions.

"In response to recent judicial rulings, effective immediately, location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory but are strongly recommended," updated guidance on the state's website now reads. The state's restrictions on activities like singing and chanting remain in place and the guidance treats these activities the same as secular live performances. Physical distancing and mask-wearing are still required for indoor singing.

Newsom's administration has repeatedly lost legal battles launched by churches and other places of worship challenging the state's limits on in-person worship. Xavier Becerra, as California's attorney general, argued that limiting in-person worship was integral to fighting the spread of coronavirus. But federal courts swatted down the Democratic policies for singling out religious activities and organizations even as it eased onerous shutdown orders for secular organizations.

The state government had attempted to limit activities like Bible or prayer groups to three households or fewer while enforcing more lax restrictions on those activities outside of the home. The move comes days after the Supreme Court dealt another blow to California's COVID-19 restrictions on worship. In a 5-4 ruling Friday, the High Court declared the state's limitations on at-home religious worship unlawful. The Court said the state was treating "some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise" and that it "cannot assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work."

Religious liberty advocates welcomed the new policy. The Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm that represented several churches in the state, said it is ready to challenge future attempts to restrict worship in the Golden State.

"Our work is far from over—we still need to ensure the state can't revert to its unconstitutional regime in the future, and we're continuing to challenge other restrictions on churches," attorney Paul Jonna said. "The capacity guidance for places of worship is now only 'recommended' and not mandatory. This is a huge win that God has provided for all people of faith."

The Newsom administration did not respond to requests for comment about the new guidances or the Supreme Court ruling.

In February, the Supreme Court struck down the state's outright ban on indoor gatherings for worship while leaving in place bans on singing. The Court determined that constitutionally protected activity like religious observance could not be treated differently than other secular activities.

Newsom said he wants to reopen the state fully by mid-June in the face of criticism for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, as well as his own violations of pandemic rules. He faces a potential recall that is expected to take place in the fall. Newsom is also up for reelection in 2022.