Over the weekend, Los Angeles County reversed their ban on indoor religious services, allowing churches and other houses of worship to open up in time for Christmas and other seasonal holidays.
Since the summer, houses of worship, led by the Harvest Rock Church of Pasadena, have been fighting in court against house of worship bans and limitations. A singing ban instituted by the state in July over concern of Spread of COVID-19 from moisture droplets from the mouth spurred a massive lawsuit, followed up by a second in another regional court. While all the churches called the ban illegal due to restrictions in the freedom of expression of religion, higher courts agreed, with Governor Gavin Newsom even reiterating the singing ban in later stay-at-home orders.
However, another lawsuit, over the state’s total ban on indoor services, soon took the center stage. The lawsuit, brought on by the Harvest Rock Church, claimed that the ban, which was based on COVID-19 rates per county, was also against freedom of expression of religion. District and Appellate courts even agreed. However, the church brought the case to the Supreme Court, with one Justice even ordering the Governor to respond to an emergency petition that requested an injunction in a lawsuit against the Governor.
This led to the Appellate decision to keep the closures in place to be vacated by the Supreme Court earlier this month, putting house of worship bans in California in limbo.
“It is the goal of Harvest Rock Church to protect the first amendment constitutional rights of the church and all people, while taking a specific stand against the misclassification of the worship of God as non-essential during this time of national unrest, economic strife, and physical ailment,” said the Church in a statement.
For weeks, Los Angeles County had waited on reopening churches, primarily due to the skyrocketing number of new COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles. But on Saturday, with Christmas week just ahead, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health finally relented and allowed houses of worship to reopen to indoor services.
However, indoor services will have to adhere to strict health guidelines.
“Places of worship are permitted to offer faith-based services both indoors and outdoors with mandatory physical distancing and face coverings over both the nose and mouth that must be worn at all times while on site,” said the LA Public Health Department in a statement during the weekend. “Places of worship must also assure that attendance does not exceed the number of people who can be accommodated while maintaining a physical distance of six feet between separate households.
“Public Health strongly recommends that places of worship continue to hold services outdoors, with physical distancing and the use of face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to congregants and to the entire community. Because Los Angeles County is experiencing an unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, every effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to congregants and to the entire community is critical.”
LA County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer also added that “Following the safety measures saves lives and is our only way to protect essential workers and our hospitals. Stay home as much as possible, do not mingle with others, and do not travel. Always wear a face covering, keep distance from others, frequently wash hands, and limit all non-essential activities.”
A holiday choice for those attending Christmas, holiday services
While California and LA County health officials are still apprehensive over reopening anything due to high COVID-19 rates, a high number of daily COVID-19 deaths, and no more ICU beds available in Southern California, many religious leaders in Southern California have approved of the county’s decision.
“This is a choice for parishioners,” explained Father Pedro Gomez, a Catholic priest in Los Angeles. “Every parish is streaming services for at-home services, as are other denominations and religions. But many don’t have computer access, don’t want to celebrate Christmas alone, or simply want to keep traditions.
“We’ll do everything possible to keep it safe. Right now we actually have reservations for different Christmas masses so we can properly assign areas of pews and keep everyone properly distanced.
“And, you know, it harkens back to the days where the church had to continue when other diseases were rampant. Churches in Spain had special measures put into place during the black plague, and churches in Mexico held mass outside on hills during smallpox outbreaks. So this may be breaking with tradition, but the church has been around long enough that we can see during difficult times we’ll find a way.
“For Christmas this year, this order can allow in-person services. But, like I said, we’re taking every precaution possible. And for anyone who can’t make it to church or are tired of watching services on their computer, remember that this is just the latest emergency measure the church has taken. If churches in WWII had to have mass by telephone for months at a time due to bombings, we can survive maybe having to have Christmas mass in our homes. Or whichever denomination you are.
“I’m happy we are allowed people, but we need to keep people safe too.”
While many insiders believe that house of worship restrictions in LA County are expected to be tightened in the coming days due to the rising number of cases, they will likely not be placed until the end of holiday services early next year.