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Federal Judge Allows Limited Indoor Santa Clara County Religious Services

SAN JOSE (CBS SF) -- A federal judge issued a temporary order Monday, allowing indoor worship services to resume at 20% capacity in Santa Clara County.

County health officials had imposed a health order over the weekend, continuing a ban on indoor services despite a Friday night Supreme Court decision that knocked down a similar statewide ban.

Religious leaders turned to the U.S. District Court to force the county to honor the Supreme Court's decision.

"We are disappointed by the temporary order of the federal district court," said James R. Williams, county counsel. "COVID-19 continues to pose a serious risk in our community, and unfortunately no court decision can decree otherwise."

While indoor services will be allowed, both the federal judge and the Supreme Court left in place prohibitions against chanting and singing.

Indoor gatherings of other kinds are still prohibited within Santa Clara County. Health officials were also strongly discouraging local residents to attend any indoor services.

On Friday night, a divided Supreme Court lifted the state ban on indoor religious services, but left in place COVID-19 restrictions on the number of parishioners allowed to attend and as well as a prohibition on singing and chanting.

In all, the justices penned four separate opinions. On one side of the spectrum, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch would have granted the churches the full relief they sought, while the three liberal justices -- Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor -- would have sided with the state.

"Federal courts owe significant deference to politically accountable officials," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, explaining his vote to grant partial relief to the churches.

He added that the state's determination that no one could safely worship in the "most cavernous cathedral" reflected an "insufficient appreciation" for the interests at stake. "Deference, though broad, has its limits," Roberts said.

Writing passionately for the liberals, Kagan said that the "justices on this Court are not scientists, nor do we know much about public health policy."

She said that the majority had displaced the judgments of experts about "how to respond to a raging pandemic" and weakened California's restrictions on public gatherings. She said that "California's choices make good sense" and that the state is "desperately trying to slow the spread of a deadly disease."

Hours before the Saturday health order was issued, San Jose Catholic Bishop Oscar Cantú told the parishes under his guidance they were free to hold limited capacity indoor services.

"I am pleased with last night's Supreme Court Decision affirming the fundamental right to indoor worship in the United States," the bishop wrote in an email. "Catholic Churches have been worshipping indoors across our country for many months, and there has been minimal COVID transmission at their religious services due to parishes following stringent health and safety protocols pursuant to State and County guidelines."

"Our parishes will continue to abide by State and County public health orders following capacity and singing restrictions, mandated cleaning protocols, social distancing, and face-covering guidelines."

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