A federal appellate court has upheld a portion of California’s shelter-in-place order that prohibits in-person worship services at churches across the state.
The case was heard following a lawsuit filed in federal court by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church of Chula Vista.
Churches have been prohibited from holding mass gatherings and other in-person services since mid-March when Governor Gavin Newsom declared an emergency shelter-in-place order to deal with the ongoing health pandemic brought on by the novel coronavirus COVID-19.
The shelter-in-place order, which required Californians to forego non-essential activity, was followed this month with a multi-phase re-opening plan that sought to return life to a sense of normalcy in the Golden State.
More than 30 counties have been given conditional approval from state officials to proceed with Phase 2 of the state’s re-opening plan, which allows for restaurants to offer in-person dining experiences subject to certain social conditioning requirements and resumes operations at state parks and beaches within certain parameters.
Not included in Phase 2 of the state’s re-opening plans: Churches and other places of worship. That discrepancy provoked a civil rights attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice to send a letter to Newsom and Xavier Becerra, the state’s attorney general, warning their decision to place churches in a different phase may violate constitutional protections and federal law.
Prior to filing the lawsuit, South Bay United Pentecostal Church Bishop Arthur Hodges told local public radio station KPBS-FM he tried to resolve the situation through backchannel diplomacy with the governor and other state officials. When that failed, he filed a lawsuit in federal court.
That lawsuit was rejected by a federal judge in San Diego on May 15. Hodges took his case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a 2-1 decision handed down on Friday, the appellate court found in favor of California.
But the fight is not over yet: The Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, an advocacy group representing the church in federal court, filed an emergency motion with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to finally get an injunction to block the state’s temporary prohibition on in-person worship services, the Times of San Diego reported.
“Gov. Newsom would apparently rather litigate this case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court than allow a single Californian to go to church,” Charles LiMandri, the chief litigation counsel for the group, told the news outlet.
Sacramento civil litigator Mark Reichel said judges generally consider the ongoing health crisis to be a “once-in-a-lifetime event” that has disrupted normal, everyday activities.
For now, that means churches in California will have to remain closed until the state is ready to move into Phase 3 of the re-opening plan.
“Until a federal judge says the churches have to open, the governor can still keep them close,” Reichel said.