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California Lifts Controversial Church Restrictions After SCOTUS Ruling

'“For over a year, the state of California has targeted the faith community for discriminatory treatment depriving them of their fundamental right to worship...'

(Headline USA) California on Monday lifted its limits on indoor worship services in the face of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that struck down the coronavirus public health mandates.

The Center for American Liberty, which had filed a string of lawsuits against Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom on behalf of churches, applauded the move.

The Supreme Court has dealt with a string of cases in which religious groups have challenged coronavirus restrictions impacting worship services. In November, the high court barred New York from enforcing certain limits on attendance at churches and synagogues in areas designated as hard hit by the virus.

The case involved two residents of Santa Clara County in the San Francisco Bay Area, who wanted to host small, in-person Bible study sessions.

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Despite the clear-cut violations of the First Amendment’s right to religious freedom, the legal battle to lift the authoritarian restrictions in California took months to weave its way through the court system.

In the meantime, Newsom and local officials had persecuted some churches by cutting off public utilities and imposing fines and other threats for noncompliance.

“Governor Newsom should have done this a long time ago,” said a statement from Harmeet K. Dhillon, the Center for American Liberty’s founder. “For over a year, the state of California has targeted the faith community for discriminatory treatment depriving them of their fundamental right to worship.”

But the embattled governor, already facing a recall for his draconian mismanagement during the pandemic, has recently softened his approach in the interest of political necessity.

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California previously announced significant changes will go into effect Thursday that loosen restrictions on gatherings, including allowing indoor concerts and theater performances.

Last week, Newsom pledged that a full reopening of businesses would be on the horizon, setting June 15 as his deadline.

Newsom’s recall petition, which would force him to bump up his re-election campaign by a year, garnered well over the 1.5 million signatures that needed to be validated, although local officials will likely attempt to reject some of them.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber must notify counties by May 9 after verifying that the recall petition has enough signatures to proceed. Signatories then would be given a month and a half to remove their names, putting the time-frame shortly after Newsom’s planned reopening.

State or local restrictions on indoor worship to prevent the spread of COVID-19 had been in place for most of the pandemic. However, limits on indoor worship capacity were instituted in February to replace an all-out ban on indoor services that the court previously struck down.

The prior ruling left in place capacity limits and a ban on singing or chanting. On Friday, however, the Supreme Court ruled that California can’t enforce virus-related limits on home-based religious worship, including Bible studies and prayer meetings.

Despite the legal setback, California’s Department of Public Health guidelines still said indoor gatherings were “strongly discouraged” and advised limiting the numbers to 25% of a building’s capacity for the two-highest levels of the state’s four-tier COVID-19 restrictions.

The recommended capacity for the two lower levels—those areas with moderate to minimum spread—is 50% capacity.

“Location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory, but are strongly recommended,” the new guidance stated and said the changes were a response to recent court rulings.

Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press

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