Some La Jolla churches welcome chance to resume indoor services while others don’t after Supreme Court ruling

St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church "might choose to continue to worship outside," according to the Rev. Mark Hargreaves.
St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in La Jolla “might choose to continue to worship outside, with a socially distanced choir, rather than move inside for services with no music,” according to the Rev. Mark Hargreaves.

Though some La Jolla churches are embracing the opportunity to resume indoor services after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week cleared the way for them to do so, several are opting not to right away.

Late Feb. 5, the high court lifted California’s ban on indoor worship during the COVID-19 pandemic, ruling that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s strict orders appeared to violate the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion. The court left in place restrictions on indoor singing and chanting and allowed the state to limit attendance to 25 percent of a church’s building capacity in areas, such as San Diego County, considered to have widespread coronavirus risk. Newsom’s office the next day issued revised guidelines for indoor church services.

After the court’s decision, Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church in La Jolla posted on social media that it would resume indoor Masses after holding services the past few months outdoors under a tent.

“It felt wonderful to welcome back the people to worship in the church,” the Rev. Pat Mulcahy said. “There was a palpable joy among the people.”

“As we go forward, we will follow all safety protocols for indoor worship and will utilize our parish hall for overflow crowds,” he said. “We are even going to explore outdoor speakers for those who do not yet feel comfortable being inside. The speakers will be placed in the grotto on the side of the church and there will be chairs for those who prefer that setting for the time being. Communion will be brought to them outside at the conclusion of Mass.

“We are trying to balance the needs of the whole swath of our community, and we are really grateful for their patience and flexibility.”

Pastor Adam Stadtmiller of La Jolla Christian Fellowship said, “We will be continuing to follow all safety protocols and look forward to having our community be able to continue to meet indoors at the limited capacities.”

However, the Rev. Tim Seery of Congregational Church of La Jolla said: “I disagree with the court’s ruling. I think it unnecessarily endangers the most vulnerable, and I continue to applaud Gov. Newsom for trying to protect the health of all Californians. Therefore, we will continue to be the church in a socially distanced virtual and online way until our community has reached widespread vaccination.”

The Rev. Mark Hargreaves of St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church said: “Our situation is not changed by the Supreme Court ruling, as we follow the guidance of our bishop. So we will wait to see what advice she gives us. We are fortunate to have a wonderful space in front of the church for outdoor services, and they continue to go well. ...

“Given how important music is to us, we might choose to continue to worship outside, with a socially distanced choir, rather than move inside for services with no music. This is a complex and ever-changing situation which we keep under constant review. I have learned during the course of this pandemic not to look too far into the future and to be content to see how things unfold.”

Rabbi Baruch Ezagui said Chabad of La Jolla is in “no rush (by God’s graces we have that luxury in California) to move back indoors until everyone feels comfortable to do so and no one feels left out in any way. We are hoping with all that is being afforded us by the medical world [that] we will all be past the point of concern soon enough to go back all together.”

Representatives of La Jolla Lutheran, La Jolla United Methodist, All Hallows Catholic, Prince Chapel AME, Congregation Beth Israel and Mount Soledad Presbyterian did not immediately respond to requests for comment Feb. 8.

La Jolla Presbyterian said it expects to make a decision soon.

La Jolla Lutheran Church’s website stated that people can “join us online or worship with us outside in our patio. … Masks are required. We’ll provide a sanitized chair spaced six feet or more from others.”

La Jolla United Methodist’s website stated that worship is online only “in order to best care for our members and guests.”

A recording at the phone number for All Hallows Catholic Church said “all services are outside until further notice.”

California put the ban on indoor services in place because health officials have determined that the coronavirus is more easily transmitted indoors and singing releases tiny droplets that can carry the virus.

“We will continue to enforce the restrictions the Supreme Court left in place,” the governor’s press secretary, Daniel Lopez, said in a statement.

Before the ruling, indoor worship services were banned in counties in the purple tier — those deemed at widespread risk of coronavirus transmission. That tier accounts for the vast majority of the state.

In its 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court was acting on emergency requests to halt the restrictions from South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry, which has more than 160 churches across the state.

Both churches resumed indoor worship services over the weekend.

Harvest Rock said in a statement that it will continue to petition for the right to sing during indoor services, arguing that the state was unfairly allowing the entertainment industry to film singing competitions but not allowing singing during indoor worship.

The Supreme Court’s newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, said in her first signed opinion that it was up to churches to demonstrate that they were entitled to relief from the singing ban. Writing for herself and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, she said it wasn’t clear whether the singing ban was being applied “across the board.”

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest of its kind in the United States, with more than 5 million Catholics, advised “parishes who choose to return” to indoor worship to follow the singing and room-capacity rules in addition to requiring physical distancing and face masks.

— The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.