SAN JOSE (CBS SF) – A federal court ruled Wednesday night that Santa Clara County's ban on indoor religious services can remain in effect for the time being, ahead of an upcoming court hearing.
Health officials said in a statement Thursday that the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California suspended its ruling requiring Santa Clara County to allow for indoor worship, after the county requested the court to reconsider the case.
The ruling issued on Monday followed last week's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which struck down the state's rules barring religious services indoors. The court allowed for some limitations on capacity and for prohibitions on chanting and singing to remain in effect.
Santa Clara County urged the court to reconsider in light of differences between county and state restrictions, notably that the county has banned all indoor gatherings across-the-board.
"The County's rules prohibiting indoor gatherings are even-handed, designed to reduce the likelihood of super-spreader events and other transmission of COVID-19, and apply to all gatherings, regardless of their purpose," said Santa Clara County counsel James Williams.
"We understand the deep desire to return to indoor worship services, but COVID-19 cases remain high and indoor gatherings pose a serious risk at this time. We are grateful for the leadership of the vast majority of religious institutions in our community that have continued to safely worship outdoors or online," Williams went on to say.
"If nothing else happens between now and the weekend, it means that the county's ban on indoor gatherings is still in place and that means houses of worship," said Margaret Russell, a constitutional law expert at Santa Clara University.
"The Santa Clara County policy just refers to indoor gatherings. It says nothing about churches or houses of worship. It applies across-the-board. So the county's argument, which I think is the correct one, is that it's different from the California law," Russell told KPIX 5.
"We still think it's unconstitutional," said attorney Mariah Gondiero. Her firm represents Calvary Chapel in San Jose, which has openly defied the courts by holding indoor worship for months.
"Our position is that they can gather indoors and I think the Supreme Court has been very clear," Gondiero said.
Russell believes the county is acting in accordance with the law. "The Santa Clara county law does not mention houses of worship. It said indoor gatherings are our concern," Russell said.
The court's ruling comes as the county reported its first case of a more contagious South African variant of the coronavirus, one of the first such cases in California.
It was not immediately known when the court would hear the case.
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