A federal appeals court this week rejected a California church’s lawsuit hoping to overturn Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on in-person church services as states are encouraged to revise social distancing restrictions amid the CCP virus pandemic.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on May 22 that the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in San Diego cannot reopen immediately after the church filed a lawsuit earlier this month alleging that state and local officials had “intentionally denigrated California churches and pastors and people of faith by relegating them to third-class citizenship.”
The lawsuit claimed that Newsom’s ban on in-person worship services violated the church’s First Amendment rights to practice their religion.
In Newsom’s re-opening plan for California, churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship will be allowed to open in “Stage 3” of the plan, along with other “higher risk workplaces.”
However, in 2-1 decision on May 22, the court upheld the state’s ban and determined that it had not violated the First Amendment. A federal district court denied the request for a temporary injunction on May 15, according to the ruling.
“Where state action does not ‘infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation’ and does not ‘in a selective manner impose burdens only on conduct motivated by religious belief,’ it does not violate the First Amendment,” the 9th Circuit Court judges wrote.
“We’re dealing with a highly contagious and often fatal disease for which there presently is no cure,” they wrote.
The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit and their request for a temporary injunction on May 8, shortly after the governor announced on May 4 that the state would enter stage two of his four-phased reopening plan.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Paul Jonna, noted that the South Bay United Pentecostal Church was not asking to return to normal religious services and said the church was willing to adhere to social distancing guidelines and would wear face masks.
U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant on May 22 said that Newsom’s order had placed churches under Stage 3 of the reopening plan because “the services involve people sitting together in a closed environment for long periods of time.” She ruled that the order was not stopping people from practicing their religion.
“Individuals can practice religion in whatever way they wish, as long as they’re not sitting with each other in large groups inside,” Bashant said.
In a three-page letter, Justice Department Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said that while he recognized the governor has a “duty to protect the health and safety of Californians,” he believes the restriction may show discrimination against religious communities.
“Religious gatherings may not be singled out for unequal treatment compared to other nonreligious gatherings that have the same effect on the government’s public health interests, absent the most compelling reasons,” the letter read.
Dreiband added that the state has failed to show “why interactions in offices and studios of the entertainment industry, and in-person operations to facilitate nonessential e-commerce, are included on the list as being allowed with social distancing where telework is not practical, while gatherings with social distancing for purposes of religious worship are forbidden, regardless of whether remote worship is practical or not.”
President Trump also called upon governors across the United States to allow churches and other houses of worship to reopen last weekend if they haven’t already done so, describing them as “essential places that provide essential services.”
Newsom said during a May 22 update that he expects to release re-opening guidelines for places of worship on May 25.