California Gov. Gavin Newsom was ordered to pay a $1.35 million settlement to a Los Angeles-area church following a decision by a federal judge. The ruling in favor of a Pasadena church is a rebuke of Newsom's draconian restrictions on in-person religious worship during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the settlement, U.S. District Court Judge Jesus G. Bernal ordered Newsom to cover the legal expenses of Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal organization that filed the lawsuit on behalf of Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry against the Democratic governor of California.
Newsom is permanently prohibited from "issuing or enforcing regulations in connection with the COVID-19 State of Emergency declared on March 4, 2020 that impose any capacity or numerical restrictions on religious worship services and gatherings at places of worship," as long as COVID-19 infections of minors does not rise 100% statewide or 200% in a county with at least 10 coronavirus hospitalizations, or as long as ICU hospital bed capacity doesn't fall below 20%, or statewide daily case rates for coronavirus does not rise above 25 cases per 100,000.
"Under the settlement, California may no longer impose discriminatory restrictions upon houses of worship," Liberty Counsel said in a news release. "This is the first state-wide permanent injunction in the country against COVID restrictions on churches and places of worship. Under the agreed state-wide permanent injunction, all California churches may hold worship without discriminatory restrictions."
Liberty Counsel argued that Newsom implemented "discriminatory restrictions" against houses of worship, but was much more lenient against "similar non-religious" activities and gatherings, such as grocery stores and transportation.
"He is the worst governor in America" for religious freedom, said Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, according to the Washington Examiner. "The church stayed open [during the lockdown], and the pastor and parishioners were threatened with daily criminal charges that were up to a year in prison.
"Gov. Newsom's COVID restrictions intentionally discriminated against churches while providing preferential treatment to many secular businesses and gatherings," Staver continued. "What's important is this ruling is permanent. He cannot ever do this again."
"After nearly a yearlong battle defending our religious freedoms, our lawsuit has reached a permanent settlement in our favor," the Rev. Ché Ahn, founder of Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry, said in a statement, according to the Patch. "I am thrilled to see the complete reversal of the last discriminatory restrictions against churches in California."
"Gov. Newsom has always put the health and well-being of Californians first, resulting in the lowest positivity rates in the country and over 35 million shots in arms — more than any other state," Newsom's office said in a statement to Newsweek. "This settlement resolves this case while providing clarity and certainty to the public around the public health standards applicable to places of worship following recent rulings by the US Supreme Court."
The Harvest Rock Church initially filed a lawsuit against California in July when lockdown restrictions were implemented.
The settlement follows Supreme Court rulings against stringent pandemic lockdowns against religious freedoms.
In April, the Supreme Court ruled against Newsom's strict regulations against religious services. In the 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court proclaimed that California's restrictions prohibiting three or more households from gathering indoors are likely unconstitutional because the same regulations do not apply to secular activities.
"California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise, permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants to bring together more than three households at a time," the majority opinion declared.
In December, the high court ruled against Newsom's restrictions on indoor religious services during the coronavirus pandemic.
In November, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for enacting stricter guidelines against places of worship than non-religious activities.