The U.S. Supreme Court Monday granted plaintiffs from the Inland Empire challenging Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-inspired restrictions on in-person church services injunctive relief, ruling that the current regulations are out of step with a recent decision in a related case.
“California’s temples of commerce have remained open while our temples of God have been forced closed,” said Harmeet Dhillon, CEO of the Center for American Liberty, which bills itself as a “nonprofit organization dedicated to defending the civil liberties of Americans left behind by civil rights legacy organizations.”
“This was the first lawsuit filed for religious liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Center for American Liberty fought tirelessly to liberate God-fearing Californians from second-class citizen status and the constant fear of fines and arrest.”
The center in December filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to bar the state from continuing to threaten or impose fines and other penalties on clergy who conduct in-person services until the case of Gish v. Newsom is decided.
A U.S. District Court judge rejected the request for an injunction, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also did not act, culminating in the petition to the Supreme Court.
However, on Friday, in a separate case in which the center also is involved, South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, the Supreme Court voted 6-3 in favor of the plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief. South Bay United is in Chula Vista and has sought to hold indoor worship since Newsom issued his March executive order prohibiting it.
The court found there could be a balance, with capacity limitations and sanitation requirements, permitting services to resume based on First Amendment freedom of worship standards.
Following that change, the justices ordered the district court to adjust its treatment of the Gish plaintiffs, whose services will be permitted to re-commence within parameters that recognize the ongoing health threat.
Arguments are still pending in the Gish case before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The center is representing two Riverside County pastors, James Dean Moffatt and Brenda Wood, and two San Bernardino County pastors, Wendy Gish and Patrick Scales.
They plaintiffs have cited the Supreme Court precedent established in November under Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo as the principal point for seeking to undo Newsom’s orders.
That case led to findings there was no justification for disparate treatment of religious worship when secular forms of behavior, including shopping and working in relatively close confines, is permitted.
“Government is not free to disregard the First Amendment in times of crisis,” according to the decision, cited by the plaintiffs.
Newsom’s multi-tiered Blueprint for a Safer Economy mandate permits outdoor worship services but expressly prohibits indoor activity in most instances.
“Indoor congregate activities, in which many people gather together in close proximity for extended periods of time, pose an especially great risk of (COVID) transmission because of the combination of the number of people, the nature of the activity and the location,” according to the state’s brief filed in response to the plaintiffs’ request.
“California and many other jurisdictions have adopted emergency measures to slow the spread of the virus,” the respondents wrote. “The state recognizes that the current restrictions interfere with the (Free Exercise Clause), and the state is committed to relaxing those restrictions as soon as public health circumstances allow.”
According to the plaintiffs’ brief, the pastors represented in the lawsuit, and many others, have implemented safeguards, including capacity limitations, distancing and ongoing sanitation, to ensure health safeguards are in place to reduce the chances of virus exposure.
“The state has singled out applicants’ exercise of faith for harsher treatment than for shopping, doing laundry, purchasing marijuana and so on,” the brief states.
“The government forbids applicants, under penalty of criminal penalty, from attending constitutionally-protected congregate worship while broadly permitting a range of secular activities.”