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New blows to pandemic worship

Courts rebuff challenges to Nevada and California COVID-19 restrictions

A banner outside the Crossroads Community Church in Yuba City, Calif., in July Associated Press/Photo by Adam Beam (file)

New blows to pandemic worship

A federal appeals court on Friday refused to set aside California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s near total ban on indoor worship. And on Monday, the Supreme Court declined to review a further challenge to Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s restrictions on indoor worship.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled against San Diego-area South Bay United Pentecostal Church. The decision means churches in nearly all California counties, barring a few rural ones, will remain shuttered for now. The state is battling rising COVID-19 cases and overloaded healthcare facilities, and U.S. Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw seemed moved by California’s rising death toll. Since churches can meet outside, she concluded the state had regulated worship in the least restrictive way available. In her opinion, Wardlaw, a Clinton appointee, said that while South Bay “demonstrated irreparable harm, it has not demonstrated that the likelihood of success, the balance of equities or the public interest weigh in its favor.”

But the panel barred the state from imposing a numerical cap in counties where indoor worship was allowed.

An appeal from Los Angeles-area Harvest Rock Church met a similar fate before a separate panel of the court on Monday in a 2-1 ruling. Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain in his reluctant concurrence said they were bound by the other panel’s South Bay decision, but criticized the outcome: “California’s uniquely severe restrictions against religious worship services—including its total ban against indoor worship in nearly the entire state—are patently unconstitutional.”

Attorneys for the church said they will appeal to the Supreme Court.

But further appeals to the high court may prove challenging. The justices on Monday rejected an appeal from Las Vegas-area Calvary Chapel Dayton without comment. The church in December won a victory when a panel of the 9th Circuit struck down Nevada’s 50-person cap on worship, finding it discriminatory when compared to percentage capacity restrictions imposed on casinos and other businesses. But Calvary Chapel contended the state’s percentage capacity restrictions on the church were still unfair, and they should be treated as essential businesses with no limits besides those required by social distancing.

Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.



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