Churches sue Calif. Gov. Newsom over COVID-19 order banning in-home Bible studies

A man reading the Bible.
A man reading the Bible. | Getty images/stock photo

A multicampus church has filed a complaint in federal court against California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 executive order that it believes effectively bans church members from holding Bible studies and other small group meetings in their homes. 

The new lawsuit was filed last Saturday on behalf of the Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church, which has campuses throughout the state, and Harvest International Ministries, a nonprofit corporation with 162 member churches statewide and over 65,000 affiliates worldwide.

Both organizations are led by Ché Ahn, an author and international chancellor of Wagner University who has been seen on networks like Trinity Broadcasting Network and GodTV. 

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The legal complaint says the governor’s order earlier this month that bans all indoor worship services in as many as 30 counties on the state’s COVID-19 county monitoring list also bans members from gathering at each other’s homes for Bible studies in those counties. 

“As part of the exercise of its sincerely held religious beliefs, Harvest Rock’s Church campuses also have numerous Life Groups, which meet in the homes of members of the Church to worship together, engage in Bible study, fellowship with one another, and minister to the needs of each other,” the complaint explains. 

“Harvest Rock has and exercises a sincere religious belief that Life Groups are an essential way for the church to fulfill its mission and to foster a healthy, vibrant, and growing Church community such that its members can gather together to grow in the Lord, mature in their faith, and understand the Scriptures better.”

The legal filing, filed by the conservative Christian legal nonprofit Liberty Counsel, calls for an injunction that would not only allow home fellowship and Bible study gatherings but also end the governor’s prohibition on indoor worship services entirely.

“Harvest International has 162 member churches in California, and each of these churches has and exercises the sincere religious beliefs that the church is to minister the Gospel of Jesus Christ to its members and attendees at its facilities,” the complaint reads, adding that the churches can’t fulfill this ministry without “gathering together in person.” 

“[It] cannot effectively engage in its constitutionally protected free exercise of religion on the internet.”

In March, churches were closed in California in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Restrictions were eased in May to allow indoor services at limited capacity provided they followed the state’s health guidelines. 

But Newsom’s new order at the beginning of the month retightens those guidelines in several counties amid a resurgence of the virus in the state. The first lockdown that many states enforced in late March was put in place solely so that hospitals were not overwhelmed with novel coronavirus patients at the same time.   

A question-and-answer page on the California government’s COVID-19 website says that state public health directives “prohibit professional, social and community gatherings.”

“Gatherings are defined as meetings or other events that bring together persons from multiple households at the same time for a shared or group experience in a single room, space, or place such as an auditorium, stadium, arena, large conference room, meeting hall, or other indoor or outdoor space,” the webpage explains. “They pose an especially high danger of transmission and spread of COVID-19.”

On May 25, the state made “an effort to balance First Amendment interests with public health” by allowing mass gatherings for faith-based services, cultural ceremonies and protests. The state allowed those types of gatherings to occur indoors as long as the gatherings did not exceed 100 people or 25% of space capacity. 

But restrictions are more firm in over 30 counties on the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list. Under the updated order from Newsom this month, worship facilities in counties on the monitoring list are prohibited from holding in-person services. 

“Gov. Newsom encourages thousands of protesters to gather in the streets but bans in-person worship and home Bible studies and fellowship. This discriminatory treatment is unconstitutional,” Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver said in a statement. “Governor Gavin Newsom cannot disregard the First Amendment and ban all in-person worship in private homes and churches. Nor can the state micromanage the form of worship by banning singing or chanting.”

The churches contend that the state’s actions violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that protects the exercise of religious beliefs. They also say that the order violates the 14th Amendment, which bars states from denying citizens equal protection of the law. 

On Monday, a U.S. District Court in Los Angeles ordered an expedited brief, requiring Newsom to file a reply to the churches’ request for a preliminary injunction by Aug. 3. 

“We are pleased that the court has set an expedited briefing schedule on the request for a preliminary injunction,” Staver said. 

Harvest Rock Church is among the churches that have defied Newsom's order as it held a service Sunday at its Pasadena location. 

“I want us to pray right now that we will win that court case,” Ahn was quoted as saying by CBS Los Angeles. “No one is above the Constitution. No one is above the law. ... As a pastor, I believe we’ve been essential for 2,000 years."

The new lawsuit is one of many that have been filed against Newsom’s orders restricting worship services. 

Last week, three other churches filed a lawsuit against Newsom’s order represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, Tyler & Bursch, The National Center for Law and Policy and Advocates for Faith & Freedom. The lawsuit contends that state restrictions on singing during worship services violates the Constitution. 

Those plaintiffs are Calvary Chapel in Ukiah, Calvary Chapel Fort Bragg, and the River of Life Church in Oroville.

“Singing in church is a biblical mandate,” Kevin Green, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Fort Bragg, told The Los Angeles Times.

The U.S. Supreme Court in May rejected a California church’s request for an emergency injunction against Newsom’s health guidelines that only allow indoor services at 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is lower. The court's denial of emergency relief was not a denial on the merits of the case, according to a statement from Liberty Counsel. 

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