For the first time in more than two months, parishes in the Diocese were given the greenlight to hold indoor Masses, following a Feb. 6 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that determined California’s COVID-related restrictions on church services to be unconstitutional.
“We’re going to go back inside our churches, isn’t that wonderful,” Bishop Alberto Rojas announced during the Feb. 10 Combined Vicariate Meeting for the Riverside Pastoral Region.
The Supreme Court’s unsigned order said that the total ban on indoor worship is unconstitutional. At most, the state may limit indoor capacity to 25% of normal. It left the ban on singing intact.
“This time it’s even better than before,” Bishop Rojas added, referencing the removal of the 100-person maximum, under the court order. That means larger churches in the Diocese will be able to accommodate more than 100 people.
California’s limits on religious services can vary by county, depending on infection rates. However, almost all of the state is in the most restrictive Purple tier ranking of viral spread, which bars in-person worship indoors, the New York Times reports. Critics have said the ban wrongly singles out religious gatherings and is among the strictest in the country.
The go-ahead to move indoors was especially welcomed by parishes that are located in areas of the Diocese that are experiencing inclement weather that makes outdoor Masses difficult if not impossible.
“I was frozen,” said a half-joking Father Michal Osuch, CR, Pastor of Our Lady of the Lake and St. Anne in the Mountains, in the mountain communities of Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs, respectively.
“It was difficult having Mass outside. I was losing people. But last Sunday [Feb. 21] was beautiful. More and more people are coming back.”
The injunction concerned two different challenges brought by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, both of which had sued California Gov. Gavin Newsom. The Chicago-based Thomas More Society, a legal group with a specialty in religious freedom cases, was representing the South Bay church.
Six justices favored the injunction, while three did not. Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
Chief Justice Roberts, writing in his own opinion, said that the state’s judgement that no adherents can safely worship even in “the most cavernous cathedral” is a view that “appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake.” At the same time, he saw “no basis” to override the state ban on singing indoors, given conclusions that singing raises the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus.
The Diocese issued renewed guidelines for the celebration of indoor Masses on Feb. 10 that included many of the same health and safety protocols designed to prevent the spread of the virus and some new ones.
“Due to the rapid increase of COVID virus mutations, particularly the variant unique to Southern California, both face shields and masks are now required to be worn by all priests, deacons, sacristans, lectors, Eucharistic ministers, emcees, ushers and volunteers,” state the Diocesan guidelines.
“Obviously the pandemic is still going on,” Bishop Rojas said. “So, we have to keep on wearing our masks, sanitizing everything, maintaining a safe distance inside the church…”
Catholic News Agency contributed to this article.