Supreme Court lifts state’s restrictions on private religious gatherings

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The Supreme Court has lifted another of California’s COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings in private homes.

In a 5-4 ruling late Friday evening, the court overturned the state’s restrictions, citing religious liberty and ruling that the state cannot prohibit people from gathering for Bible study and prayer meetings in their homes.

“California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise, permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants to bring together more than three households at a time,” the majority wrote in an unsigned order. “The 9th Circuit did not conclude that those activities pose a lesser risk of transmission than applicants’ proposed religious exercise at home.” 

While churches and synagogues across the Santa Clarita Valley have done what they could through the pandemic to provide services to their congregants, the ruling was welcomed by many, including Jared Ming, lead pastor at Higher Vision Church.

“We really believe that the church, that prayer and that leaning on the Lord and one another is vital to helping people find healing and move forward in life, and we do that obviously through our weekend services with worship, whether it’s online or on site, but there’s something to be said for people being able to encourage each other on a personal level,” Ming said.

Though Ming hopes people exercise caution and safety in conducting such gatherings, he believes it’s an opportunity for them to once again support one another, quoting a Bible verse that states that as iron sharpens iron, so do people sharpen one another.

“Being able to be connected to another person through prayer and encouragement is so important,” he added. “And having the freedom to do that I think is going to be helpful and vital in people finding emotional and spiritual health and to move forward out of the really difficult season that we’re in.”

Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, also applauded the ruling in a social media post Sunday, writing, “As families across (California) head to church this morning, it is good to see the Supreme Court has overturned restrictions on private worship. Religious freedom is a fundamental and absolute right, and Sacramento politicians had no right to infringe upon it.”

Joe Keller, executive pastor at Grace Baptist Church, noted this is the second time the court has ruled in the churches’ favor after a ban on indoor worship services was overturned last year, and said the church is once again grateful for the opportunity to allow congregants to express their Christian values.

“There’s something about the Christian life that meeting in homes together, fellowshipping, doing life together in a smaller setting, in the context of a home, that really allows us to be able to express what it means to be a Christian family in ways that’s different than the church gathering,” Keller said.

The ruling now will give the church’s congregants a real freedom of conscience knowing that they’re not outside of the guidelines, according to Keller, who added, “Because being together is a part of what it means to fellowship and to encourage one another towards love and good deeds in the context of relationships. And relationships are part of what it means to be a Christian and to be a part of the family of God.”

Similarly, Rabbi Mark Blazer of Temple Beth Ami noted that following the law is very important in Jewish tradition.

However, Blazer said there’s a balance that must be met with this need in combination with the importance of following health and safety protocols and the desire and need for people to be together.

“We’re definitely excited that the data shows that people are doing what they need to do, and we just want it to continue to be that way — we want people to continue to be healthy,” Blazer added. “We’ve gone through a very rough period, and we don’t want to do anything to go backwards.”

To meet the spiritual and physical needs of congregants, Joe Beran, lead pastor at Bethlehem SCV, said there must be a balance between safety precautions and taking care of those needs.

“It’s finding that balance of saying, ‘We still fully believe in God’s word and the power of the church gathering together, but at the same time, we want to be wise, and we want to keep everyone safe,’” Beran said, adding that the court’s ruling will allow congregants the means to gather, while continuing to following safety precautions. “We recognize that God has given us the science and empiricism so we can know the world around us a little bit better, and so we’re going to be wise in how we do that, but also meet, celebrate and gather around God’s word.”

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