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California Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing a legal challenge from pastors in his state objecting to coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
Pastors are suing state officials over the “shelter-at-home” mandate issued by the Democrat governor last month in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that attending church services should be considered one of the “essential” activities allowed in the order.
The lawsuit was filed Monday by the Center for American Liberty along with the Dhillon Law Group in the US District Court for the Central District of California, on behalf of four plaintiffs and naming Newsom, State Attorney General Xavier Becerra as well as county sheriffs and health officers in the filing.
While threat of an impending lawsuit apparently led to a slight easing of restrictions this past weekend, the lawsuit demanded “religious liberty beyond Easter Sunday.”
“This past weekend both San Bernardino County and Riverside County allowed practicing Christians to congregate, in varying capacities, outside their homes to celebrate Easter,” Harmeet Dhillon, Center for American Liberty CEO said in a statement.
“While giving in to criticism and respecting Christians’ right to religious liberty on Easter Sunday was undeniably the right decision by County Supervisors, the government may not selectively license religious liberty to Christians on Easter Sunday,” Dhillon added.
“Criminalizing individual participation at a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other house of worship clearly violates the First Amendment,” she said. “The state and localities have granted sweeping exceptions to the shutdown orders for favored businesses and professions, while specifically targeting people of faith and decreeing to religious institutions that it is ‘good enough’ that they be allowed to offer streaming video services. The state does not get to dictate the method of worship to the faithful.”
Some church groups have continued to defy Newsom’s statewide stay at home order which was issued on March 19 and which punished violators with a $1,000 fine or up to 90 days imprisonment. The governor told worshipers they could gather this weekend but cautioned safety measures to be observed.
“As you pray, move your feet at least six feet apart from someone else,” Newsom said last week, ahead of the approaching holy day. “Practice your faith, but do so in a way that allows you to keep yourself healthy, keep others healthy.”
After a letter sent by Dhillon to San Bernardino County officials last week, in-person church services were being allowed “if they choose to do so and make every effort to prevent contact between congregants.”
One of the pastors in the lawsuit claimed he was fined $1,000 for holding service on Palm Sunday.
Our client, a pastor, was fined $1,000 for preaching on Palm Sunday. (And the church practiced social distancing during the service.)
— Mark Trammell (@mark_trammell) April 13, 2020
The lawsuit filed Monday argued that the lockdown orders are unconstitutional and an abuse of power by state officials, contending that recommendations that churches stream services online are not practical for all and place unfair restrictions on some congregations.
The filing argued that state officials used the COVID-19 pandemic to strip Californians of “fundamental rights protected by the U.S. and California Constitutions, including freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, and due process and equal protection under the law.”
“California is a diverse state with many religions represented. The Constitution demands that all must be afforded the ability to practice their faith according to the dictates of conscience and be treated no less favorably than any other organization or person subject to the current shutdown orders,” Dhillon said in a statement.
“Where government picks and chooses who gets exemptions and who doesn’t, according to entirely arbitrary and opaque criteria, this offends the Constitution and causes irreparable harm,” she continued.
“Not every person of faith has access in California to a broadband connection, a computer, and the technical skills to stream a service. Not every faith organization has the ability to produce high-tech services – nor should they be required to,” Dhillon concluded. “If a Californian is able to go to Costco or the local marijuana shop or liquor store and buy goods in a responsible, socially distanced manner, then he or she must be allowed to practice their faith using the same precautions.”
A Department of Justice spokesperson noted that the government regulations of religious services is being monitored by Attorney General William Barr.
During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services. While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!
— KerriKupecDOJ (@KerriKupecDOJ) April 12, 2020
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