Court upholds California ban on church services in pandemic

Courtesy: MGN

California Gov. Gavin Newsom had the right to ban church assemblies in the interest of public health during the coronavirus outbreak, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

Posted: May 6, 2020 8:53 AM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom had the right to ban church assemblies in the interest of public health during the coronavirus outbreak, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

Newsom’s stay-at-home order did not violate the constitutional rights to free assembly and religion when the Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi was ordered to cease holding services, Judge John Mendez ruled in Sacramento.

Pastor Jonathan Duncan had continued to assemble his congregation after the governor banned public gatherings in March despite warnings it was in violation of state and local orders. The church of fewer than 50 members said it was obeying federal guidelines to prevent spread of the virus.

Lodi police entered the church during a service attended by about 30 worshipers in late March and said they were defying the governor’s order. The church responded with a “cease and desist” letter sent to the city and argued they had a First Amendment right to gather and practice their religion.

“Constitutional rights cannot be suspended by a virus,” the church’s attorney, Dean Broyles, said at the time.

Police posted a notice on the building that it’s nonessential use created a public nuisance. San Joaquin County health officials then warned the church’s landlord, Bethel Open Bible Church, it could face a misdemeanor charge if it allowed assemblies to continue.

Duncan planned to hold Palm Sunday services on April 5, but couldn’t get in the church because his landlord had changed the locks. Police threatened to cite anyone who entered the property.

Duncan said in a statement that he was disappointed with the ruling but would continue to fight for the right to worship.

“It is time for pastors and religious leaders across the state to rise up and start pushing back against these draconian stay-at-home orders that completely fail to take into account the true essentiality of religion in our society,” Duncan said.

The church was one of several that initially defied the governor’s order. Most houses of worship have moved to online services, though Broyles said “more churches than you would think” are not complying with the order.

The church argued in its suit against Newsom, Lodi police and county health officials that the order was an abuse of power that criminalized communal worship while allowing people to frequent department stores, liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries and other businesses deemed essential.

The judge said that argument missed the point because shoppers were going to those businesses to purchase specific items, not to commune with each other. A more relevant comparison would be restaurants, concerts, movies and sporting events — secular places people gather that were also ordered closed.

Mendez said state and local stay-at-home orders were a valid exercise of emergency police powers and didn’t violate the church’s constitutional rights. Mendez noted that the Supreme Court over 100 years ago upheld the government’s right to exercise police powers to promote public safety during a public health crisis.

“During public health crises, new considerations come to bear, and government officials must ask whether even fundamental rights must give way to a deeper need to control the spread of infectious disease and protect the lives of society’s most vulnerable,” Mendez wrote.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed a brief supporting the public officials, applauded the ruling because it upheld an order that applies to secular and religious gatherings.

“Gov. Newsom’s public health order does not violate religious freedom; it ensures that the government is not favoring some people’s religious practices in a way that endangers other people’s lives,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United said in a statement. “We sympathize with Californians who find solace in communal religious services and applaud the faith communities who are finding creative new ways to worship together remotely.”

Broyles said the judge’s rejection of a temporary restraining order request will not stop them from pressing on with their case.

“It’s the first skirmish in many battles that lie ahead,” he said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. Most people recover.

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 122168

Reported Deaths: 4444
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Los Angeles596922532
Riverside8303345
San Diego7798283
Orange6783165
San Bernardino5650209
Alameda364197
Santa Clara2850144
San Francisco264443
Imperial249330
Kern246245
San Mateo224484
Tulare208392
Fresno194437
Santa Barbara171414
Contra Costa154738
Sacramento149058
Ventura119035
Kings11876
San Joaquin102436
Stanislaus79230
Monterey62110
Sonoma5934
Solano55922
Marin52517
Merced3107
San Luis Obispo2881
Placer2599
Santa Cruz2192
Yolo21624
Madera1293
Napa1263
Humboldt1044
El Dorado980
San Benito962
Butte601
Nevada491
Sutter482
Del Norte470
Shasta404
Mono371
Mendocino330
Yuba311
Lake300
Inyo201
Glenn170
Calaveras160
Mariposa161
Amador100
Siskiyou90
Colusa70
Tehama61
Tuolumne50
Lassen50
Plumas40
Alpine20
Sierra10
Trinity10
Unassigned00
Chico
Few Clouds
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Hi: 90° Lo: 59°
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Oroville
Clear
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Hi: 90° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: 72°
Paradise
Few Clouds
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Hi: 83° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 72°
Chester
Clear
71° wxIcon
Hi: 78° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 71°
Red Bluff
Clear
74° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 60°
Feels Like: 74°
Willows
Few Clouds
72° wxIcon
Hi: 94° Lo: 57°
Feels Like: 72°
Today will be nice but much cooler weather this weekend with a chance of showers and thunderstorms, mostly in the north valley and mountains. We heat up again next week.
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