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Coronavirus

Colorado drops coronavirus capacity limits on houses of worship after U.S. Supreme Court ruling

Public health officials are still recommending that houses of worship limit the number of people they let attend services

Pastor Robert Martin, Jr., of Denver’s Zion Temple Pentecostal Church exits his church on July 17, 2020 in Denver. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado has dropped its coronavirus capacity limits on houses of worship and religious events, including weddings and funerals, after a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling cast doubt on the legality of such restrictions.

State public health officials are still recommending that houses of worship limit the number of people attending services. But an amended order released late Monday night by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment appears to concede the state likely cannot enforce capacity caps following the Supreme Court’s decision.

“Worship and ceremonies such as weddings and funerals are classified as essential,” CDPHE said in a news release. “This means that they must do their best to follow public health recommendations but may exceed recommended capacity caps if they cannot conduct their essential activity within those restrictions. They still must require masks indoors and other prevention measures like 6-foot spacing between members of different households and appropriate sanitation. Outdoor activities are still strongly preferred.”

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The U.S. Supreme Court last month temporarily ruled 5-4 that New York’s limits on attendance at places of worship, which were aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, could not be enforced.

The ruling was temporary because a lawsuit by religious groups challenging the limits is still playing out in court. But it provided a preview of a likely outcome for when the case goes before the Supreme Court for a final decision.

“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area,” the Supreme Court’s conservative majority wrote in their opinion. “But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

Colorado had been allowing houses of worship to operate at up to 50% of their capacity, or up to 500 people. That’s only in counties with the least amount of COVID-19 spread; no Colorado counties currently fall into that category.

For counties under red- or purple-level restrictions, including the entire Denver metro area and a host of other counties across Colorado, capacity at houses of worship has been limited to 50 people or 25% of capacity.

Gov. Jared Polis’ administration has been battling with churches over capacity limits for months. Mask-wearing mandates have also been a point of contention with religious institutions in Colorado.

The changes went into effect at 5 p.m. on Monday.


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