California will have to pay over $1 million in legal fees and attorney costs as part of a settlement reached with Harvest Rock Church over litigation surrounding the state’s lockdown rules.
Last year, Harvest Rock and other ministries sued Gov. Gavin Newsom over a coronavirus pandemic lockdown order limiting the size and scope of worship gatherings they argued violated their religious freedom.
U.S. District Court Judge Jesus G. Bernal issued an order last week requiring the state to pay the plaintiffs $1.35 million in attorney’s fees and legal costs incurred in the case.
The order also prohibited unfair treatment of houses of worship in emergency orders, explaining that the state government could “impose capacity or numerical restrictions on religious worship services and gatherings at places of worship that are either identical to, or at least as favorable as, the restrictions imposed on other similar gatherings of similar risk.”
“This Order does not prohibit the State from issuing recommendations, best practices, precautions, or other measures, as long as such promulgations make clear to the public that they are voluntary and not enforceable,” continued the order.
Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver, whose legal nonprofit represented Harvest Rock, said in a statement released Monday that “Newsom has now been permanently quarantined and may not violate the First Amendment rights of churches and places of worship again.”
“We are grateful for Pastor Ché Ahn, Harvest Rock Church, and Harvest International Ministry. Pastor Ahn’s leadership and courage has toppled the tyranny and freed every pastor and church in California,” he added.
Last July, Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry, which includes multiple member churches, filed legal challenges to California's gathering restrictions. A three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled 2-1 against Harvest Rock last October, concluding that the limits were justified.
“The Orders apply the same restrictions to worship services as they do to other indoor congregate events, such as lectures and movie theaters," the court majority argued. "Some congregate activities are completely prohibited in every county, such as attending concerts and spectating sporting events."
In April, amid various legal challenges to the state restrictions, California lifted rules requiring houses of worship to adhere to capacity limits, changing the standards on places of worship from “mandatory” to “strongly recommended.”
“In response to recent judicial rulings, effective immediately, location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory but are strongly recommended,” a government website explained. “The linked guidance is in the process of being updated. All other restrictions in the guidance remain in place.”