Santa Clara County faith groups scramble to comply with changing COVID-19 orders
WestGate Church is pictured in this file photo. Courtesy of Mapquest.

It’s been a tumultuous time for South Bay faith groups who have heard varying guidance from the federal, state and county government about whether they could worship inside.

All indoor church operations are officially suspended in Santa Clara County despite recent pushback from local churches and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that suggested such a move would be unconstitutional.

Five South Bay churches tried to contest Santa Clara County’s ban on indoor services but on Friday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit​ decided Santa Clara County can continue to ban all indoor gatherings.

“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,” County Counsel James Williams said.

On Feb. 5, the Supreme Court ruled a California ban on indoor faith-based gatherings was unconstitutional, and many local faith groups were celebrating. That is, until Santa Clara County said it would continue its ban, regardless of the decision of the highest federal court in the country.

County officials argued their ban was different because it didn’t target religious groups; it banned indoor gatherings of all kinds. California’s ban specifically prevented all indoor religious services. Therefore, county officials said Feb. 6, the ban would continue.

Williams said the county’s ban on gatherings is fundamentally different than California’s. Churches can remain open for other services — such as individual indoor prayer and confession — providing there are no gatherings, according to county guidelines. Williams encouraged faith groups to continue meeting outdoors or connect online.

On Feb. 8, a U.S. District Court put the county back in its place, saying that it is still required to comply with the Supreme Court decision. Faith groups would be able to gather indoors. At the time, Williams said he was disappointed because COVID-19 remains a large threat in the county.

Then, on Feb.10 the U.S. District Court reversed its decision, saying Santa Clara County can continue to prohibit any and all indoor religious gatherings until the court has done further review.

“We are pleased that the court has given us an opportunity to fully brief and argue the important legal and public health issues at stake in this case,” Williams said. “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.”

The last time the county lifted restrictions on faith groups was in October, allowing a 25% indoor capacity. At that point, Santa Clara County was in a less-restrictive orange tier in California’s reopening plan. Even then, some faith groups weren’t happy and said that wasn’t enough: Many faith leaders asked the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to take action and allow 50% indoor capacity, without success.

By Nov. 16, the county was back in California’s most-restrictive purple tier, pushing religious services outdoors again.

Regardless of what the county guidelines are, Finny Abraham, a pastor at WestGate Church in San Jose, said his congregation will take the safe route for the foreseeable future.

“At the moment all our operations are online,” Abraham said. “By the first week of March we are hoping to have outdoor services.”

Mohammed Nadeem, board president at the Muslim Community Association, said he’s worked with the county to make sure worshippers can adjust to the current guidance. He said he knew rules on indoor worship would continually change, and he and his colleagues made plans for all capacity levels and shared them with worshippers.

“For the community, for all of us, regardless if you’re Muslim, non-Muslim, we are all going through this huge challenge,” Nadeem said. “It has affected how we work and pray. It’s been quite difficult.”

Nadeem said that after almost a year of limited gathering, “people are eager to come back for prayer … Not all of them are excited to go inside, to be honest, some want to continue prayer outside.”

Santa Clara County health officials last week announced the presence of a second, mutated variant of COVID-19, first identified in South Africa. Because vaccinations remain in early stages, county officials said it’s critical to avoid high-risk activities, including indoor gatherings.

As of Feb. 11, there were 106,372 cases of COVID-19 in Santa Clara County, and 1,624 residents have died from the disease.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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