A Chula Vista church that sued Gov. Gavin Newsom to halt enforcement of the ban on in-person religious gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic is appealing a San Diego federal judge’s denial of its request to reopen
South Bay United Pentecostal Church and its senior pastor, Bishop Arthur Hodges III, sued Newsom and a host of other state and local officials earlier this month for placing churches and other places of worship under Stage 3 of California’s reopening plan, which also includes movie theaters, salons and gyms.
The lawsuit alleges state and local elected officials have “intentionally denigrated California churches and pastors and people of faith by relegating them to third-class citizenship.”
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant denied the request, saying the state’s order placed churches under Stage 3 because “the services involve people sitting together in a closed environment for long periods of time,” rather than any motivation against religion.
The judge noted that similar restrictions have been placed on a variety of secular industries and that alternatives such as drive-in and remote services remain in place for people to engage in worship activities.
The church appealed the decision the following day, reiterating its arguments that California reopened certain sectors, such as manufacturing and warehouses, under Stage 2 in an arbitrary fashion that is dismissive of the religious rights of Californians.
“California has decided that it can prioritize reopening the economy by opening all factories — even `non-essential’ ones — but not churches,” the church’s appeal states. “This is because, in Governor Newsom’s view, places of worship provide a `low reward’ to the people of California. This unconstitutional denigration of people of faith cannot continue.”
Charles LiMandri, an attorney representing South Bay United, said the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals set an expedited briefing schedule, which he said “is significant,” because “it shows that they are taking our urgent appeal seriously.”
LiMandri said, “If we win at the 9th Circuit, then the most populous state in the union can start religious services again, and we will have vindicated our constitutional rights, and struck a blow against tyranny.
“If we lose at the Ninth Circuit, then we will have a split in the federal circuit courts with the 6th Circuit, and we will file an immediate emergency appeal with the United States Supreme Court. Either way, the outcome of this case stands to have a major potential impact on our religious liberty and our nation’s constitutional jurisprudence.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice sent Newsom a letter alleging his reopening plan is discriminatory against places of worship.
“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 authored by Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband says.
The letter references the South Bay United case, as well as the case of Abiding Places Ministries in Campo, which also sought to reopen for in-person services and was likewise denied by Bashant. The letter says neither court decision addresses what distinguishes worship services from the reopenings of schools, restaurants or factories under Stage 2.
“We believe that the Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the Reopening Plan,” Dreiband wrote.
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