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California churches sue Gov. Gavin Newsom over coronavirus social distancing order

'The state does not get to dictate the method of worship to the faithful'

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A group of churches in California is suing California Gov. Gavin Newsom, along with other state and county officials, for social distancing orders that prevent churches from holding services in-person, the Los Angeles Times reported.

California, like many other states, has instituted a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. While some of those states have exempted religious organizations, California has not. The lawsuit aims to block Newsom's order on the grounds that it infringes on the right to freedom of religion and assembly.

"The state does not get to dictate the method of worship to the faithful," said Harmeet K. Dhillon, chief executive of the nonprofit organization Center for American Liberty, in a statement, according to the Times. "If a Californian is able to go to Costco or the local marijuana shop or liquor store and buy goods in a responsible, socially distanced manner, then he or she must be allowed to practice their faith using the same precautions."

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which the Center for American Liberty filed on their behalf, include Church Unlimited Pastor James Moffatt; the pastor of Shield of Faith Family Church; and the pastor of Word of Life Ministries.

Moffatt was recently fined $1,000 for holding church service in Riverside County on Palm Sunday (April 5), the Times reported. The lawsuit says that Moffatt believes he is required, as a minister, to lay hands on the sick and to baptize people.

The churches' stance is that the social distancing orders are too broad, and that proper safety precautions could be taken in churches that don't require a total ban on services. From the Times:

"I believe the suit has merit," said John C. Eastman, a professor of law and community service at Chapman University in Orange.

"Obviously, stopping a pandemic is a compelling government interest" but the issue is whether the orders are narrowly tailored enough to meet the strict scrutiny required of laws dealing with religion, Eastman said in an email.

"Services with only a single family in a pew, and spaced three pews apart, with everyone wearing masks and gloves, would accomplish the government's purpose in a much less draconian way," he said.
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