On Tuesday, Judge John Mendez of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California ruled that California Governor Gavin Newsom’s ban on in-person house of worship assemblies was valid.
Newsom and California win large case challenging house of worship closure order
Judge Mendez ruled in favor of Newsom and California as the banning of in-person religious gatherings is considered in the best interest for public health because of the coronavirus pandemic. The emergency order was deemed to have not violated the church’s first amendment rights
“During public health crises, new considerations come to bear, and government officials must ask whether even fundamental rights must give way to a deeper need to control the spread of infectious disease and protect the lives of society’s most vulnerable,” said Judge Mendez in his ruling.
The case itself concerned Lodi’s Cross Culture Christian Center and its leader, Pastor Jonathan Duncan, not being allowed to hold religious ceremonies despite following federal coronavirus safety guidelines. The church had been caught by Lodi police in March for holding a service with several dozen members inside, which the church then responded to the next day by sending a cease-and-desist letter to the city based on 1st amendment violations.
A growing argument unfolded, with San Joaquin County officials threatening charges, the church having its locks changed, and police threatening citations. Following this, Duncan sued.
The case became one of several in California over defying the order. The Center for American Liberty has sued California over the ban, among others, but courts have come down with rulings confirming the legal validity of the ban several times.
Lawyers for Duncan and the church had tried to mark houses of worship religious services as essential services, noting that other places like food stores currently allowed larger gatherings, but Judge Mendez countered that religious services were more in line with movie theaters and sporting events as stores allowed for specific purchases that were needed for health and welfare during the pandemic.
First amendment and ‘essentiality’ of services
Duncan and supporters were chagrined with Tuesday’s ruling, with Duncan himself vowing to keep challenging the ruling over the “essentiality” of religious services.
“It is time for pastors and religious leaders across the state to rise up and start pushing back against these draconian stay-at-home orders that completely fail to take into account the true essentiality of religion in our society,” said Duncan.
Other supporters had similar views, but with a more refined focus on what makes services essential.
“Supermarkets are for food and pharmacies are for health,” said Thomas Espinoza, a churchgoer who has assisted several churches in California in setting up remote services. “But this is for spiritual health. It keeps people connected, especially those who don’t have more than a phone for human contact during stay-at-home orders. Religion is essential for many people, and we have a right worship however we want.”
“This is what a lot of leaders here don’t understand. Churches are what hold many smaller communities together and how many get help from one another. And services are essential for church or whatever you believe because we keep the day holy.”
“I’ve been telling those I’m helping stream services that the church isn’t a building so much as it is the people, but many have explained to me that it’s hurting many who relied on it as a social and care basis. Some worshipers only come out on Sunday’s to go to church, and it’s the only way to know how good health-wise they really are. It’s not just about mass or services. There’s a lot more to it. I think knowing how the health of hard-to-reach people is essential, but it’s just being ruled on a religious and assembly basis.”
Outcomes of other current house of worship lawsuits, as well as new lawsuits and appeals, are expected to continue until the lockdown over gatherings is over.
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