US judge denies bid to open California churches in pandemic

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday said he will deny a bid by three Southern California churches to hold in-person church services during the pandemic, saying that government’s emergency powers trump what in normal times would be fundamental constitutional rights.

U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal in Los Angeles said he will reject the temporary restraining order the churches sought against Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials. They argued that the state’s stay-at-home orders violate the First Amendment right to freedom of religion and assembly.

“During the state of emergency the executive powers are in effect, in that they are empowered to provide for emergency remedies which may infringe on fundamental constitutional rights,” Bernal said the the end of the hourlong hearing. He said he will soon issue a formal ruling.

Many churches have been holding online services. California officials on Friday said religious organizations can have drive-in services so long as congregants don’t have personal contact.

Attorney Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican Party official and chief executive of the nonprofit Center for American Liberty, argued that it is unfair for the state to allow people to attend to other needs that have been deemed essential, like going to the grocery store or picking up meals, while blocking religious services that she said for many believers are as important as eating.

Officials could require congregants to wear masks and stay a safe distance apart, the same as for other essential activities, she said.

“People of faith are no more interested in dying than anybody else,” Dhillon said.

Yet for believers, “it is not entertainment, is not optional, it is not for Sundays only,” she said, warning that the government might increase health risks by driving churchgoers to attend secret services.

But state Deputy Attorney General Todd Grabarsky said during the hearing held by teleconference that religious organizations are not being singled out by rules that similarly restrict gatherings at concerts, nightclubs, schools — even in-person court hearings.

“Any harm ... is really significantly outweighed by the harm to public health,” he told the judge. “We’re dealing with a life-and-death situation for whole groups of people.”

For most people, the highly contagious coronavirus causes symptoms such as high fever and a dry cough. But some people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, become much sicker and even die.

The lawsuit was filed by three churches in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, east of Los Angeles.

James Moffatt, senior pastor at Church Unlimited in Indio, was fined $1,000 for violating Riverside County’s order by holding a Palm Sunday service, according to the lawsuit. The other plaintiffs are a parishioner and the head pastor of Shield of Faith Family Church in Fontana and the senior pastor of Word of Life Ministries International in Riverside.

Dhillon said after the hearing that it is not yet clear if or when the churches will appeal. She asked Bernal to hold a further hearing on her request for a preliminary injunction, a process that could take weeks or months.

Other similar lawsuits might also be appealed in the meantime, Dhillon said.

For instance, a different federal judge earlier this month similarly rejected a temporary restraining order sought against San Diego County officials by a small church in Campo, Abiding Place Ministries.

However, yet another federal judge ruled that Kentucky’s largest city couldn’t stop a local church’s drive-in service.