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US judge denies bid to open California churches in pandemic

A federal judge on Wednesday says he will deny a bid by three Southern California churches to hold in-person church services during the pandemic.

Posted: Apr 22, 2020 4:52 PM

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday said he will deny a bid by three Southern California churches to hold in-person church services during the pandemic, saying that the government’s emergency powers trump what in normal times would be fundamental constitutional rights.

U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal in Los Angeles said he will reject the temporary restraining order the churches sought against Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials. They argued that the state’s stay-at-home orders violate the First Amendment right to freedom of religion and assembly.

“During the state of emergency the executive powers are in effect, in that they are empowered to provide for emergency remedies which may infringe on fundamental constitutional rights,” Bernal said the end of the hour-long hearing. He said he will soon issue a formal ruling.

Many churches have been holding online services. California officials on Friday said religious organizations can have drive-in services so long as congregants don’t have personal contact.

Attorney Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican Party official and chief executive of the nonprofit Center for American Liberty, argued that it is unfair for the state to allow people to attend to other needs that have been deemed essential, like going to the grocery store or picking up meals, while blocking religious services that she said for many believers are as important as eating.

But state Deputy Attorney General Todd Grabarsky said during the hearing held by teleconference that religious organizations are not being singled out by rules that similarly restrict gatherings at concerts, nightclubs, schools — even in-person court hearings.

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