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April 13, 2021

Supreme Court rejects Santa Clara County’s ban on indoor church services

Makes final ruling after series of court decisions

The U.S. Supreme Court ordered Santa Clara County to allow indoor worship services to resume at limited capacity Feb. 26, reversing an earlier decision that upheld the ban.

The court on a 6-3 vote rejected a Feb. 12 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that extended the county’s ban on indoor gatherings, allowing churches to operate indoors at 20 percent of capacity.

In the ruling, the Supreme Court called the Ninth Circuit’s decision “erroneous.”

“This outcome is clearly dictated by this Court’s decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom,” the court wrote.

Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said officials were “disappointed” in the decision.

“The Supreme Court order was issued without any analysis at all of the county’s gathering rules, which have always been neutral and applied equally to all gatherings across-the-board,” he said. “Indoor gatherings of all kinds remain very risky, and we continue to urge all religious institutions to carefully follow the public health recommendations to avoid the spread of Covid-19 among their congregations and the broader community.”

On Feb. 5, the Supreme Court partially blocked the state’s prohibition on indoor places of worship.

Santa Clara County officials, however, argued that its rules for indoor gatherings were “structured in a fundamentally different way than the state’s rules,” and announced Feb. 6 that indoor gatherings of all types remain prohibited.

Shortly after, five churches in the county, including Trinity Bible Church in Morgan Hill, filed a motion with the Ninth Circuit against Santa Clara County, saying the county is unlawfully denying their right to worship with the ban.

The court sided with the churches on Feb. 10, but two days later it temporarily suspended the injunction.

In a Feb. 16 application to the Supreme Court seeking an overturning of the ruling, the attorneys representing the churches, Kevin Snider, Sharonrose Cannistraci and Marlis McAllister, wrote that the county has “monitored, harassed, sued and fined houses of worship for violating worship restrictions.”

“Enforced by seven-figure administrative fines and the threat of prosecution and incarceration, the County continues to place governmental restraints on First Amendment liberties never seen or imagined in this nation prior to 2020,” they wrote.

Trinity Bible Church announced that it held in-person services on Feb. 28.

Santa Clara County expects to move into the Red Tier of the state’s reopening guidance on March 3, which would allow places of worship to open indoors at 25 percent of capacity.

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