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Calif. judge rejects pastors' exemption request to hold in-person church services

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Unsplash/Karl Fredrickson

A federal judge has rejected a request by three pastors and a church attendee to give them an exemption to a state of California order banning in-person worship services to curb the spread of COVID-19.

U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal in Los Angeles decided on Wednesday to reject a request for a temporary restraining order against California to exempt three churches from Gov. Gavin Newsom's executive order.

At the end of an hour-long hearing, Bernal argued that the state of emergency brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic overruled the religious liberty protections of the First Amendment.

“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,” Bernal said, according to The Associated Press.

Harmeet Kaur Dhillon of the Center for American Liberty, which is helping to represent the churches, took issue with the denial of the temporary restraining order.

“Count on more restrictions on all your civil rights in California with no end in sight, if this is the reasoning courts will be applying,” she wrote on Twitter.

“… 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.”

Earlier this month, Wendy Gish, a member of Shield of Faith Family Church in Fontana; Patrick Scales, pastor of Shield of Faith; James Dean Moffatt, senior pastor at Church Unlimited of Indio, and Brenda Wood, senior pastor at Word of Life Ministries International of Riverside, filed a lawsuit against California over its stay-at-home order.

A major point of contention was Newsom’s executive order that compelled California residents to “stay home or at their place of residence except” for essential activities.

While the State Public Health Office later released a document exempting several activities, in-person religious services were not listed.

“… this list prohibits all religious leaders from conducting in-person and out-of-home religious services, regardless of the measures taken to reduce or eliminate the risk of the virus spreading,” read the complaint.

“Meanwhile, the list deems the continuity of services provided by coffee baristas, burger flippers, and laundromat technicians to be so necessary for society that these activities are permitted to continue under the State Order, despite the existence of the very same risk Defendants rely on to stymie the exercise of fundamental rights,” the complaint added. 

In addition Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the suit also named multiple local officials as defendants, including San Bernardino County Public Health Officer Erin Gustafson.

Deborah Fox, an attorney for Gustafson, argued that in-person worship was not comparable to the other exempted activities, given its communal environment.

“You can’t sit in a McDonald’s and have a burger and fries,” said Fox, the Los Angeles Times reported. “You can’t sit in Starbucks with a coffee and read The New York Times.” 

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