Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church lost its bid for an emergency order overturning Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on indoor singing and chanting in places of worship — enacted to fight the spread of the coronavirus, according to court papers obtained Friday.
Harvest Rock — which also has houses of worship in Corona and Irvine — sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in July, alleging that the governor’s statewide ban violates the right to religious freedom clause of the First Amendment, and the “cherished liberties for which so many have fought and died.”
U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II denied the motion in Los Angeles federal court and the church appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which denied the request in a 2 to 1 ruling Thursday.
The majority of the panel held that the state’s health restrictions on churches did not discriminate against religious expression.
California’s orders apply to worship services as they do to other indoor events, such as lectures and movie theaters, according to the appellate order, while some activities are “completely prohibited in every county, such as attending concerts and (spectator) sporting events.”
Liberty Counsel, a Florida law firm that defends Evangelical churches, filed the case on behalf of Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry and now plans to file its brief on the merits of the request for a preliminary injunction, which remains undecided by the appellate panel.
Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman, said the church is grateful for the panel’s dissenting vote and looks forward “to the next round at the Court of Appeals on the full merits of our request to block the First Amendment violations. While the virus does not discriminate between nonreligious and religious gatherings, Gov. Newsom does.”
Although Harvest Rock Church says it encourages parishioners to physically distance, wear face coverings and get their temperatures checked, it has held indoor services over the summer.
In a Sunday service in July that was livestreamed on YouTube, Harvest Rock Pastor Che Ahn asked congregants to pray to win the case, which he described as a battle against the “demonic forces trying to shut down the church in America.”
Newsom’s press office previously declined comment on the lawsuit.
Guidelines issued by the state Department of Public Health, through Newsom, discourage singing or chanting indoors due to fears that it increases the spread of respiratory droplets, thus increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19 among a crowd.
The church maintains that in times of “trouble and distress,” congregants “are to sing to the Lord even more and to sing aloud to him,” according to its 74-page suit.
Staver alleges that public health guidelines unfairly target places of worship over other institutions because Newsom supported protests over George Floyd’s in-custody death and police brutality that included chanting during the pandemic.
“The governor cannot claim a compelling, legitimate or even rational interest in his orders when he has permitted and encouraged mass gatherings of thousands of protesters to engage in the very activity he claims poses a massive danger to California if it takes place in plaintiff’s churches,” the suit states.
Harvest Rock, which has 162 member churches throughout the state, including campuses in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, alleges that it “cannot fulfill its vital ministry and sincere religious beliefs without gathering together in person, and that it cannot effectively engage in its constitutionally protected free exercise of religion on the internet.”
A similar lawsuit by three places of worship in the Southland was lodged in April in Los Angeles against Newsom and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
Deemed a nonessential service, churches were closed in March amid Newsom’s stay-at-home orders. Restrictions subsequently eased and houses of worship were given approval to welcome worshipers, provided they followed health and safety guidelines limiting attendance.
In-person services are permitted if proper measures, including social distancing and use of masks, are followed, and all houses of worship are required to limit attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees.
The church contends that failure to gather in person for religious worship services “is disobedience to the Lord for which (the church) will be held divinely accountable.”
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