‘We’re Not in Communist China, This Is the United States’: California Pastor Fights for Right to Worship

March 19, 2021 Updated: March 19, 2021

A church in Pasadena, California, has won a major court battle that allows them to open up amid strict lockdowns.

After a district court rejected the church’s appeal to for relief, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the church stating that California officials cannot bar churches from holding indoor services amid the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic.

“I’m thinking, we’re not in North Korea, we’re not in Communist China. This is the United States, and they want to arrest church members, law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes, and they just want to worship,” Pastor Che Ahn whose parents fled communist religious persecution in North Korea told The Epoch Times’ Crossroads program.

In February, the Supreme court ruled in favor of Harvest Rock Church ordering a rollback on some of the heavy-handed restrictions that California Gov. Gavin Newsom had imposed on churches. The court lifted the ban on in-person religious services but still allowed some limits on indoor gatherings. The court also did not touch the governor’s ban on singing and chanting during indoor services.

The California government then promised to reopen churches, the pastor of Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena said.

“The thing that was really disheartening is that they declared us not essential from the beginning. Abortion clinics were essential, marijuana dispensaries were essential,” said Ahn. “Of course, liquor stores [were] essential, as well as grocery stores, but not the church.”

Then, a letter signed by 150 pastors was sent to Newsom demanding the restrictions be lifted, Ahn said.

Ahn stressed the importance of the spiritual, mental, and emotional support that the Ecclesia has offered throughout history in times of crisis, explaining that church-goers also followed the sanitary rules. He added that his church hadn’t caused any outbreaks of the CCP virus.

California authorities then let them open up for a month or so, he said. Limited amounts of people were going to the church and were doing social distancing, wearing masks, getting their temperatures checked, and performing sanitations. However, two weeks later they were informed that there should be no singing or chanting in the church.

Over the summer of 2019, however, protests and demonstrations erupted after the death of George Floyd in police custody. In Los Angeles, 100,000 people were marching wall to wall with no social distancing, Ahn said.

Epoch Times Photo
Protesters clash with police during a rally against the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, in Union Square, New York City, on May 28, 2020. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

“They’re shouting and turned very violent as they looted and caused tremendous damage. And Newsom does a press release and says, you know, we heard your voices, your voices need to be heard, you’re exercising your First Amendment rights, and we will protect you. And, and during this time, he just had locked down the church again.”

The pastor noted that he is in favor of protecting First Amendment rights as long as it is not violent. But he said the right of Americans to worship also needs to be upheld.

He then decided to sue Newsom to see if the courts can be convinced to agree with the church to allow in-person services as long as the risk to spread the CCP virus is mitigated, he said.

Harvest Rock Church’s webpage states that they have the goal of protecting the First Amendment and taking a specific stance against the “misclassification of the worship of God as non-essential during this time of national unrest.”

“My understanding of the First Amendment is that the state will not establish a state religion nor interfere with a free exercise thereof,” Ahn remarked.

After filing the lawsuit, Ahn received a letter from a city prosecutor in Pasadena.

“[It] was a very dark, nasty letter,” Ahn said. The prosecutor said in the letter that “if you continue to meet, we will arrest you. We will fine your church members $1,000 per person, per meeting,” Ahn continued, “We’re talking about millions of dollars. ‘And we have the right to arrest your church members.’”

Ahn said he felt it was hypocrisy from his politicians.

“And then here’s the crazy irony of the whole thing. Newsom is allowing prisoners out because of COVID crowdedness. He wanted social distancing to the prisons, all these prisoners are being released. And yet now, we’re being threatened to be arrested.”

Ahn then appealed to the district court but received another negative answer, which prompted them to appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court where they were also turned down.

“And finally, we went to the Supreme Court. They weighed in,” Ahn said.

Right after they issued the decision in a New York case that “it was unconstitutional to limit the size of attendance in the Catholic Diocese and the Jewish synagogue, they contacted us and they said, ‘Yes, what they’re doing is unconstitutional,’ and then [went] back to the Ninth Circuit to correct that, and gave a roadmap of what the courts should do,” Ahn said.

Gavin Newsom
California’s Governor Gavin Newsom speaks to the media in Sacramento, Calif., on March 3, 2020. (Reuters/Gabriela Bhaskar)

He and other church members are continuing the court case because, Ahn explained, they found out that a deal between a certain television show and Newsom was made, where they are allowed to sing.

“If people do not resist totalitarianism … if we didn’t have people that said ‘no’ to authoritarian control that’s not even reasonable, I feel that we’re going to see worse things happen. And so I want to do my part to make a prophetic stand without being rebellious and in my own way to say, ‘This is, to me, an issue of justice. It’s an issue of First Amendment rights, and I’m going to exercise that without having a bad attitude or being mean or unkind,'” Ahn said.

He added that his father, a pastor in Pyongyang in North Korea, was imprisoned by communists when they came into power.

When American troops pushed the communist forces to the Chinese border during the Korean War, his parents escaped to South Korea and later the whole family emigrated to the United States.

Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.

Follow Joshua on Twitter: @JoshJPhilipp