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NIH Head Suggests Churches Shouldn't Return To In-Person Worship Yet

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Constitution guarantees the freedom of assembly and worship, but what if assembling to worship endangers public health? The Supreme Court ruled on this topic again today, temporarily siding with a California church that does not want restrictions on singing and praying indoors. In an unsigned ruling, the justices ordered a lower court in California to reconsider a previous ruling, a previous ruling that upheld a state restriction on some church services to limit the spread of COVID-19. Well, joining us for an update on where all this stands, let's turn to NPR's Tom Gjelten. Hey, Tom.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hi. So this is actually the second time in a week - right? - that the court has ruled...

GJELTEN: Yeah.

KELLY: ...On this issue, states restricting churches in the name of COVID prevention. There was another ruling in a New York case just a few days ago.

GJELTEN: Yeah, that's right, Mary Louise. And in that case, the court ruled that some restrictions that were being imposed on religious services in New York were just too extreme. The state had set up these color-coded zones. And in the red zones, where the coronavirus risk was highest, no more than 10 people were permitted to attend services. And in orange zones, the limit was 25. And this applied even in churches that can seat more than a thousand people. Now, those limits had already been suspended, but the court made clear that those particular restrictions by design were excessive and arbitrary and unfair to those churches.

KELLY: OK, so stay with this first ruling for another moment. Is it - is this good news for church leaders who would like to lift restrictions on their worship services? People may have seen that story about the pastor in California who pulled out his cellphone during a service and read from that New York ruling.

GJELTEN: He read from that ruling, and everybody applauded. And he said, basically, we have won. But I think he was jumping there to an unwarranted conclusion. That's certainly the view of at least one law professor I spoke with today. This is John Inazu at Washington University in St. Louis. He writes often on this issue. Here's what he told me.

JOHN INAZU: If you're a 5,000-person church gathering in person without masks in violation of a state order, this ruling does absolutely nothing to help your cause.

KELLY: Nothing to help your cause. Tom, why is that?

GJELTEN: Well, it's because that ruling last week in New York did not say that worship services cannot be restricted. Professor Inazu told me the question is really how to restrict them. He, for one, thinks religious liberty, religious worship qualifies as an essential activity. The question, he says, is whether these restrictions violate that First Amendment you referred to to freely exercise your religion. Here's what he said.

INAZU: And in many, many cases, this will be a discretionary decision by state and local officials. The court has weighed in and said at some extremes, there are constitutional violations. But in most cases, this is going to be a gray area. It's going to be the decision-making of local officials.

GJELTEN: So they'll still have some freedom to impose limits on public gatherings in churches as well as in other places for the sake of public health.

KELLY: OK, so that brings us up to today, this second ruling that pertains to churches in California. Is it consistent with the New York ruling?

GJELTEN: Yeah. This referred to a lower court that had, as you suggested, upheld some restrictions on church worship. A church in Pasadena objected to no avail, but the Supreme Court said today that that lower court should reconsider its ruling in light of what the court ruled last week - that restrictions can't be too extreme and they can't single out churches for special treatment.

KELLY: The backdrop to all of this, of course, is that we're seeing record hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. As you've reported on this, Tom, where are most churches on how to handle the pandemic?

GJELTEN: The important thing to emphasize, Mary Louise, is that the vast, vast majority of churches are actually following the public health guidelines and either not meeting in person at all or in a very limited way. Just by chance, I was listening this morning to a Zoom conversation on this very issue. It featured Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health. He's also someone who is quite religious and takes his Christian faith seriously. He made clear in that conversation that this is really not the time to go back to in-person worship.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANCIS COLLINS: Churches gathering in person is a source of considerable concern and has certainly been an instance where super-spreading has happened and could happen again. So I think most churches really ought to be advised, if they're not already doing so, to go to remote, virtual kinds of services.

GJELTEN: And, Mary Louise, Dr. Collins himself is a regular churchgoer. He says that's what his church has done.

KELLY: All right. That is Tom Gjelten. He covers faith and belief for NPR. Thank you, Tom.

GJELTEN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.