SCOTUS decisions do not affect Southwick churches, says health director

SOUTHWICK- The Town of Southwick will continue to enforce existing state-issued COVID-19 restrictions on houses of worship in the wake of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings on cases in New York and California. 

Health Director Tammy Spencer said that places of worship will be treated the same way as any other business in Southwick in regards to Massachusetts COVID-19 workplace standards.

In the Supreme Court’s two decisions on Nov. 25 and Dec. 3, the court decided that religious institutions in New York and California respectively were facing far stricter COVID-19 restrictions than other secular institutions in the state. The court argued that this is a violation of the First Amendment. 

During the Board of Health meeting Dec. 3, board members questioned whether the rulings by the high court could affect their ability to enforce restrictions on religious gatherings as COVID-19 sees a significant surge in Southwick. 

After speaking with the police department, Spencer said that the restrictions could be enforced because the state guidelines for religious and non-religious gatherings are the same. Such enforcement would not include police action, but would involve fines based on the severity of the violation.

Those fines would include up to $500 for each person above the limit at a particular gathering and $300 for people who do not wear a mask or face covering.

During the pandemic, municipalities have been encouraged to form agreements between their Public Health and Police Departments. Southwick Police Department has agreed to be an agent for the Southwick BOH, but all enforcement action is handled by the Board of Health,” said Spencer. 

She said that an officer was sent to Southwick Baptist Church on Sunday, Dec. 6 at the request of a board member to do a compliance check. The officer apparently found that mask-wearing was not nearly as widespread in the church as it should have been. However, she believes that happened because the church was operating under an old guidance that she had previously sent them saying that mask wearing was only required if social distancing was not possible. 

Newer guidance from November dictates that people in gatherings must both wear masks and socially distance. In addition, because Southwick individually moved to Phase 3, Step 1 of Gov. Charlie D. Baker’s reopening plan, places of worship as well as other non-secular entities will have their gathering capacity reduced from 50 percent to 40 percent. This guidance will go into effect statewide on Sunday, Dec. 13. 

“I will be working with all of the places of worship in town to get them up to date with the newest guidelines,” said Spencer. 

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