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Federal judge rules Calif. Gov Gavin Newsom had right to ban church services

Federal judge rules Calif. Gov Gavin Newsom had right to ban church services

California Gov. Gavin Newsom | Facebook/Gavin Newsom

A federal judge on Tuesday ruled that California Gov. Gavin Newsom had the right to ban churches from assembling during the coronavirus pandemic in the interest of public health after Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi sought a temporary restraining order against the move.

“This Court finds the State and County stay at home orders being challenged here bear a real and substantial relation to public health,” U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez wrote in his order denying the application brought by the church and Pastor Jonathan Duncan.

The judge said the church's argument that their services are "much safer than shopping at Costco, Walmart, or Home Depot" is unpersuasive. 

"[I]t assumes that the State and County’s designation of essential activities turns solely upon people’s ability to comply with the CDC guidelines while engaged in those activities. Not so. The State’s order expressly states it took other considerations into account, i.e., continuing non-COVID-19 emergency services, providing clean water, protecting the state’s supply chains, etc.," he wrote.

Mendez noted that the church “failed to produce any evidence that their in-person gatherings pose little threat of increasing COVID-19’s spread.”

“The understandably cherished freedom to exercise sincerely-held religious beliefs ‘does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability,’” the judge wrote, citing case law. “More specifically, when a neutral law of general application places incidental limits on a religious exercise, ‘the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community ...  to communicable disease.’”

Duncan and his church filed a complaint against the City of Lodi, its police chief and several State and County officials alleging that the stay-at-home orders Newsom and San Joaquin County enacted to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus “impermissibly infringe upon their constitutional and statutory rights to speak, assemble, and practice religion as they choose.” 

They argued that as long as the church complied with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidelines while conducting its in-person services, the church should be allowed to keep its doors open.

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State officials, including Newsom, opposed the arguments put forward by Duncan and his church. The defendants were also supported by the secular advocacy organization Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in an amicus brief filed April 28. 

The group argued that it would be unconstitutional to exempt religious gatherings from the stay-at-home orders.

“A single unwitting carrier in Cross Culture’s congregation could cause a ripple effect throughout the entire community: That one carrier might pass the virus to his neighbors in the pews, who might then return home and pass it to their family members, including people at high risk of severe illness,” the organization contended. 

“If those infected family members then go to the doctor’s office, or to the grocery store for milk, they may potentially expose others, who may then do the same to their families — and so on. The more people who get sick, the more strain is placed on the hospital system — and the greater the chance that people die due to lack of healthcare resources. The Establishment Clause forbids government to grant religious exemptions for conduct that threatens to harm so many.”

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, said while they sympathize with those in the religious community who are unable to gather in-person due to the coronavirus others were finding creative ways to do so.

“We sympathize with Californians who find solace in communal religious services and applaud the faith communities who are finding creative new ways to worship together remotely. We will get through this crisis together, even if not in person,” she said in a statement. 

“Especially during hard times, we must hold fast to our constitutional principles, including the separation of religion and government,” she added. 

“Gov. Newsom’s public health order does not violate religious freedom; it ensures that the government is not favoring some people’s religious practices in a way that endangers other people’s lives. As we’ve already seen in California and across the country, COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate between religious and secular gatherings — it spreads easily at both, putting the health of entire communities at risk.”

Mendez’s order comes after a federal judge in Los Angeles last month rejected a request from three churches seeking a temporary restraining order against Newsom’s order. U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal ruled that the government’s interest in curbing the spread of the virus permits “emergency remedies which may infringe on fundamental constitutional rights.”

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