On Wednesday, the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles denied a request by three Los Angeles area churches to hold in-church services while both state and county lockdown are in effect.
In-person church services will continue to not be allowed under lockdown
U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal ruled that the argument by Center for American Liberty lawyers representing Church Unlimited, Shield of Faith Family Church, and Word of Life Ministries International that Governor Gavin Newsom’s lockdown orders had violated first amendment freedom of religion and assembly rights was not valid.
“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,” stated Judge Bernal in response to the churches’ request for a temporary restraining order on Newsom’s stay-at-home measures. The restraining order itself was only filed a week ago.
Opposition to the ruling
National Committeewoman of the Republican National Committee for California and Center for American Liberty CEO Harmeet Dhillon opposed the judges ruling, arguing that going to church on Sundays is as essential as food shopping for many people. Dhillion even proposed having attendees wear masks and stay six feet away while at services.
“People of faith are no more interested in dying than anybody else,” Dhillon said. “It is not entertainment, is not optional, it is not for Sundays only.”
On Twitter following the ruling, she added “Since multiple rights are implicated here (worship, assembly, speech) & we are NOT dealing with laws of general applicability (many exceptions for secular purposes) we disagree, & have asked for a preliminary injunction.
Because the state’s view of religion was summarized in the Riverside counsel’s argument –we cancelled Coachella and sporting events too, religious gatherings are similar- and because the Governor is saying there will be restrictions into next year o n all your civil rights in California with no end in sight, if this is the reasoning courts will be applying. Religious people and civil libertarians don’t want to die from any disease any more than the secular public at large, and we have to get back to normal life slowly.
But for now at least California was forced in this lawsuit to admit that socially distanced worship in drive-up service settings was permissible, which is a big improvement over the status quo for the past 6 weeks. We will keep fighting for more freedom for people of faith.”
3/ and not strict scrutiny or some other form of analysis. Since multiple rights are implicated here (worship, assembly, speech) & we are NOT dealing with laws of general applicability (many exceptions for secular purposes) we disagree, & have asked for a preliminary injunction/
— Harmeet K. Dhillon (@pnjaban) April 23, 2020
Public safety concerns and a small drive-up service victory
California Deputy Attorney General Todd Grabarsky, attending the hearing remotely, argued that churches are not being singled out and that any gathering with a significant amount of people are not allowed, even pointing out court proceedings. He also used the core arguments of public safety and having a public emergency due to the COVID-19 coronavirus to justify the laws.
“Any harm is really significantly outweighed by the harm to public health,” stated Grabarsky during the hearing. “We’re dealing with a life-and-death situation for whole groups of people.”
Despite in-person church services still not being allowed, places of worship did receive a small victory in being allowed to have drive-up, socially distanced services.
“It’s not much, but it’s a first step to having traditional services again,” noted Los Angeles Assistant Pastor Corey Dunn. “Between this and remote services it’s a start. I’ll be honest though, many of us would rather have the doors open for people.”
A formal opinion by Judge Bernal is expected in the next few days.
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