Some Tahoe churches move back to in person services after court ruling


On Friday, Feb. 6, a Supreme Court ruling lifted some restrictions on the way places of worship such as temples, churches, mosques and synagogues in California hold services during the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling went into effect immediately and as of the following Sunday, many places of worship around the state opened their doors to 25% capacity including local churches at Lake Tahoe.

During California’s stay at home order, and for counties in the most restrictive purple tier, indoor services were prohibited.

The cases brought to the Supreme Court stated that California’s tier-based restrictions were a violation of the Constitution’s free exercise of religion.

The lawsuits were brought by two separate churches one located in Chula Vista and the other in Pasadena.

The recent rulings allowed counties in the purple tier — currently there are 52 counties in this tier including El Dorado, Placer and Nevada counties — to have indoor services with up to 25% capacity while still adhering to health and safety guidelines along with continued prohibition on singing and chanting. The updated tier status also applies to cultural ceremonies like weddings and funerals.

Local churches are asking those who are comfortable to attend in-person services to do so, but are also offering continued online live-streamed services.

Terrence Sutton, lead pastor of Tahoe Forest Church in Truckee, says they will be offering both options for their Sunday gatherings.

“Our church will continue to utilize virtual platforms as well as abide by the 25% guideline,” he said in an email.

After the ruling, some members met in a small capacity.

“It has been great to meet outside and see familiar distanced masked faces inside,” he said.

In 2019, Tahoe Forest Church finished their outdoor amphitheatre and they already had been working on establishing their online presence, which helped them brace for the pandemic.

In South Lake Tahoe, at Sierra Community Church, traditional Sunday services are also back in session.

Corbett Robertson, pastor of the church, said that they are following the new ruling and restrictions by having in person services while limiting them to 25% capacity with social distancing and mask guidelines. Sierra Community Church is still offering their live-streamed and recorded services which they began at the beginning of the pandemic last year.

Lake Tahoe Christian Fellowship also posted on their Facebook page that it will be meeting in person again in addition to its virtual services.

While several are opening doors at 25% to respond to the ruling, South Lake Tahoe’s Unity at the Lake is waiting for the county to move into the moderate, or less restrictive orange tier, before allowing the hybridization of its services.

“After surveying the interests and pulse of our congregation, we have begun planning and are ready to move into a hybrid form of Sunday Celebrations once El Dorado County reaches the orange status,” said John Eldridge, who hosts the Sunday Zoom celebrations and is also the music minister for the church.

Eldridge also said that when they do go back to in person meetings, they will continue to have Zoom conferencing for those who are comfortable returning.

“With our congregation being mostly 50 years old and older, we have been diligent and conscientious in our handling of the situation at hand,” he said.

Unity at the Lake has been solely using Zoom since March. In the meantime, Eldridge says that the church has grown and expanded through adjusting to an online platform.

He says that they have had opportunities such as having distant attendees and nationwide guest speakers.

“This not only allows us to attract new faces to UATL, but keeps the variety of spiritual wisdom and messages flowing from a plethora of experienced speakers,” Eldridge said. “We welcome the news of the rulings, as we collectively move into a space of confidence and faith in meeting in person full time again. But, we are okay with the patience being asked of us by the universe right now. And we have benefitted from this time of adaptation and looking within for the answers to the questions that have been posed.”

California’s tier status for places of worship:

Widespread (purple)

– Indoor with modifications

– Indoor activities must be limited to 25% of capacity

Substantial (red)

– Indoor with modifications

– Indoor activities must be limited to 25% of capacity

Moderate (orange)

– Indoor with modifications

– Indoor activities must be limited to 50% of capacity

Minimal (yellow)

– Indoor with modifications

– Indoor activities must be limited to 50% of capacity

California’s general checklist for places of worship is available at–en.pdf.

Cheyanne Neuffer is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun.

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