SAN JOSE (KPIX) - Last week the Supreme Court struck down California's ban on indoor church services to stop the spread of COVID-19 as a violation of religious freedom. Then, other federal courts upheld Santa Clara county's ban, adding to the confusion and frustration.
"I think people outside of church are looking at us and just saying, 'Man, do they understand what's going on,'" said Adam Ybarra. "If a parishioner does catch COVID from a service, the community is not going to forgive that, family members are not going to forgive that and nobody wins."
Ybarra, who is a parishioner at Cathedral of Faith in San Jose, said he sensed frustration among his friends who are pastors about last week's ruling that kept the county's ban in place. But he said that the health of the community should be priority.
"It's real, it's a real frustration, because folks are saying, 'Look, the bars are still, there's still things that are open," he said.
Ybarra, who is also a pastor of the former Oakland Raiders, said that his congregation has 12,000 members and there just isn't a way to gather safely.
You wouldn't know there was a ban at all by looking at Calvary Chapel in San Jose. Sunday, worshipers arrived en masse, with almost no one wearing a face mask.
"God's our leader," said a man named Cody. "So we're not waiting for the county to tell us if we can or can't do church. We're going to do church regardless."
Following the Supreme Court decision allowing indoor worship, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled Santa Clara county's ban could stand because it involves all indoor gatherings, without specifying churches. That means Calvary Chapel is once again defying the law.
Margaret Russell, a professor of constitutional law at Santa Clara University, said the Santa Clara county health order is stronger than the California order because it doesn't include any language about places of worship or religious services.
"The Santa Clara law, arguably, is constitutional," Russell said. "Santa Clara county has articulated it as this is a public health concern, and we can't make exemptions that will damage public health. So if it's seen as that, I think Santa Clara county has a good defense."
Other churches are following the state's new COVID-19 protocols. Pastor Steve Roma of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Santa Clara said they were planning to reopen on February 27.
"I think we were ready," he said. "I think we're capable of following the guidelines keeping people safe, but also being together. I think we're capable of doing that."
For now, he said he'll follow the law and stick with online services. But he said his small congregation is elderly and the isolation from their church family is affecting the physical health of some of his parishioners.
"It is deeper than just a ritual or a tradition or something you do," Roma said. "It's this deep familial connection that they just don't get online."
While other churches are struggling, Pastor Mel Dahlgren of the South Bay Christian Church thinks the shutdown has been a godsend. He said the congregation loves the Zoom services, doubling attendance and adding new people from other states. It's been so successful they cancelled their lease on the building they were renting, electing to continue strictly as a virtual church.
"I haven't had one complaint since we started," said Dahlgren. "We just asked God to redeem the situation and turn it into a blessing and it sure has done that!"
Three churches, three very different reactions. As for the future, some legal experts believe the Ninth Circuit decision could land back at the US Supreme Court. Russell thinks the Justices may rule that the county's health order does not discriminate against churches.
"I think the majority of the US Supreme Court would understand the distinction," she said, "and would analyze the Santa Clara order differently because it is not singling out religion or houses of worship."
Ybarra said he doesn't think once the ban is lifted there will be a rush to attend Sunday services, and that people, like himself, have adjusted to attending virtually. But he does believe that church is essential.
"I miss church, for sure," said Ybarra. "You definitely miss the people, you miss connecting."
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