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Recent Supreme Court Rulings Encourage Some To Continue In-Person Worshiping

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Parishioners at a Southern California church say they'll continue to attend in-person worship services. That's despite a ban on such gatherings intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus during this alarming spike in cases. Stephanie O'Neill reports that the churchgoers are encouraged by two recent Supreme Court decisions.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) In the name of Jesus...

STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: On a Sunday morning, a live band performs indoors for more than 200 in-person worshippers at the evangelical Christian Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, Calif.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing).

O'NEILL: Congregants, many of them standing close together and without masks, sway, sing and holler out loud as the service also broadcasts live on YouTube. Joy Ahn Ngu new leads the worship.

JOY AHN NGU: If you need healing in your body, I want you to lift your hand in the air right now.

O'NEILL: The service lasts about 90 minutes. Afterward, outside the church, Kathleen Schaefer says attending in-person services means everything to her.

KATHLEEN SCHAEFER: There is something about standing with others. I get emotional about it. My hands get warm. I feel connected in a way that - you can't do it online in your bedroom. I'm sorry.

O'NEILL: Worshipping with others is essential, says parishioner Carol Wagner.

CAROL WAGNER: If you're a believer in Jesus Christ, you know the richness and the glory that's revealed when we worship together and honor God.

O'NEILL: Early this month, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily sided with Harvest Rock Church when it vacated a district court order that had upheld the state's limits on indoor services. The justices ordered federal judges in Los Angeles to reconsider the case in light of its decision last month rejecting worship limits in New York that weren't as strict as California's. Erwin Chemerinsky is dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law.

ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: What we don't know to this point is how far the court will go in limiting the ability of governors to restrict gathering for religious worship.

O'NEILL: For now, Harvest Rock will continue in-person services, says attorney Mat Staver. He represents the Pasadena church and its nearly 170 affiliate congregations, and he's confident of a win in California.

MAT STAVER: At this stage, it's a no-brainer.

O'NEILL: Because the Constitution guarantees the freedom of assembly and worship, Staver argues, in-person church services should be exempt from any ban on gatherings.

STAVER: People need fellowship, and they need support. You can go to warehouses and big-box centers and spend hours there with no limitation. But you can't spend an hour in a church socially distanced. Frankly, if you go to a grocery store, you're encountering more risk.

PETER CHIN-HONG: I wish that were true, that it was safer in a church environment. But unfortunately, it's not.

O'NEILL: Dr. Peter Chin-Hong is an infectious disease specialist and a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco.

CHIN-HONG: You go into a store, you're generally in for a very short period. And you keep your mask on at all times.

O'NEILL: By contrast, science shows indoor worship gatherings, where often-maskless people sing, accelerate the spread of contaminated respiratory droplets, prompting most churches to follow public health guidelines. Harvest Rock asks its worshippers to physically distance and to wear masks upon entering and exiting. But inside, it's up to churchgoers. And many, like Diana Namara, are choosing not to mask.

DIANA NAMARA: I'm a healthy individual. I put my faith in God to protect me. And that might sound crazy, but that's my faith, and that's what I believe. So no, I'm not fearful at all.

O'NEILL: Namara says she'll keep attending services at Harvest Rock while the church continues to fight California's worship limits. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Pasadena. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.