The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Gov. Gavin Newsom's ban on in-person church services. The decision was in response to a lawsuit brought forth by a California church that argued that the governor's lockdown orders violated First Amendment rights.
The South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California, filed a lawsuit on May 8 in San Diego federal court. The lawsuit claimed state and local elected officials have "intentionally denigrated California churches and pastors and people of faith by relegating them to third-class citizenship."
The church sued Newsom and other California leaders after places of worship were not allowed to open in Phase 2 of California's re-opening plan.
The plaintiffs' attorney, Paul Jonna, noted that the South Bay United Pentecostal Church was not asking to return to normal religious services. The church was willing to adhere to social distancing guidelines and would wear face masks.
"For the millions of faithful in California, religion is needed in these times more than ever," Jonna said. "It might be hard for governing officials to understand, especially if they're hostile to religion or don't see its relevance, or if they think it's `low reward.' But to Bishop Hodges and millions of Californians, free exercise of religion is eternally important. To them, it's the most essential of activities."
U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant denied the church's request for an injunction. She said the state's order placed churches under Stage 3 because "the services involve people sitting together in a closed environment for long periods of time," and was not stopping people from practicing their religion.
"Individuals can practice religion in whatever way they wish, as long as they're not sitting with each other in large groups inside," Bashant said.
The South Bay United Pentecostal Church appealed the decision, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Newsom's ban on in-person church services late Friday. In a 2-1 decision, the federal appeals court upheld the state's ban, saying that the shelter-in-place orders do not violate the First Amendment, adding that churches are a "higher risk workplace."
"Where state action does not 'infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation' and does not 'in a selective manner impose burdens only on conduct motivated by religious belief,' it does not violate the First Amendment," the ruling said.
The dissenting vote came from Judge Daniel Collins, who was appointed to the bench by President Donald Trump.
"By explicitly and categorically assigning all in-person 'religious services' to a future Phase 3 — without any express regard to the number of attendees, the size of the space, or the safety protocols followed in such services — the State's Reopening Plan undeniably discriminate[s] on its face against religious conduct," Collins wrote.
Last week, more than 1,200 California pastors proclaimed that they will defy Newsom's shelter-in-place executive order and will resume in-person church services.
Attorney Robert Tyler wrote a letter to Newsom on behalf of the churches. He accused the Democratic governor of overlooking the "essential and critical nature of the services provided by clergy and religious assemblies throughout California."
"The clergy is convinced that 'we the people' are ultimately responsible to protect the individual liberties that may be lost unnecessarily during times of crisis regardless of whether public officials' actions are well intentioned," the letter read. "Without the checks and balances of the courts and legislature, the clergy now stand as a counterbalance to unchecked regulatory action."