A Christian church in California’s San Joaquin Valley has filed a federal lawsuit against the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, arguing the governor’s stay-at-home order that prompted the closure of their church violates their constitutional religious protections.
The governor’s stay-at-home order was issued in March after hundreds of Californians contracted the novel coronavirus COVID-19, part of a global pandemic of the virus that spread from state to state and country to country.
The governor said his stay-at-home order — one of the first in the nation — was a practical measure to keep residents of the Golden State safe. But in a federal lawsuit filed this month, the Cross Culture Christian Church in Lodi says they believe they should be exempt from the governor’s directive that bans mass gatherings in public.
The governor has made exceptions in his orders for “essential” businesses and organizations like grocery stores and hospitals. Cross Culture Christian Church says it’s not only their desire to see religious organizations like theirs deemed an essential organization, but their constitutional right to gather and worship.
Speaking to FOX40 News, attorney Mark Reichel says the governor’s stay-at-home order exempts businesses and organizations like grocery stores because the public’s risk exposure is limited since most residents are only expected to stay in a store for a short period of time. That’s different from a church, where worshippers gather for an extended period of time.
“The public health [reason] behind it is that people are going to be there for a while,” Mark said.
Mark said there’s not a lot of legal precedent when it comes to ordering churches and other religious establishments to close, though recent lawsuits have created some conflicting opinions from judges.
In Kansas, a federal judge found that a similar stay-at-home order in that state violated religious freedom rights by specifically limiting in-person worship sessions to less than 10 individuals at any given time. The ruling in mid-April paved the way for two churches to hold sessions as they regularly would.
But around the same time, a federal judge in San Diego denied an exemption request from a local church, even though members of that church offered to stay in their cars and wear head-to-toe protective gear in order to attend Easter Sunday services. An attorney representing the Abiding Place Ministries argued that a growing list of exemptions allowed San Diego residents to purchase marijuana, among other things, but not attend religious services at the church where he’s a member, Abiding Place Ministries.
An attorney for the county said religious services weren’t specifically targeted. Instead, there was a wide, blanket ban on non-essential gatherings. That attorney said the church’s offer to social distance and wear protective gear couldn’t be adequately enforced because the county didn’t have enough law enforcement personnel to police the worshippers.
A federal judge sided with the county in that case, finding the church had the authority to “limit the exercise of religion when faced with a public health crisis,” local NBC station KNSD-TV reported.
The split between federal courts may, on one hand, have something to do with the types of exemptions and restrictions in each state and county. On the other hand, judges have been referring to the coronavirus pandemic as a “once-in-a-lifetime occurrence,” Mark told FOX40, and legal officials are having to figure things out on the fly.