Court upholds California ban on church services in pandemic

California Connection

LOS ANGELES (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom had the right to ban church assemblies in the interest of public health during the coronavirus outbreak, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

Newsom’s stay-at-home order did not violate the constitutional rights to free assembly and religion when the Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi was ordered to cease holding services, Judge John Mendez in Sacramento said.

Pastor Jonathan Duncan had continued to assemble after the governor banned public gatherings in March despite warnings it was in violation of state and local orders.

Lodi police entered the church during a service attended by about 30 worshipers in late March said they were defying the governor’s order. The church responded with a “cease and desist” letter sent to thee city and argued they had a First Amendment right to gather and practice their religion.

“Constitutional rights cannot be suspended by a virus,” the church’s attorney, Dean Broyles, said.

Police posted a notice on the building that it’s nonessential use was a public nuisance. San Joaquin County health officials then warned the church’s landlord, Bethel Open Bible Church, it could face a misdemeanor charge if it allowed assemblies to continue.

Duncan planned to hold Palm Sunday services on April 5, but found the church doors locked when he arrived. His landlord had changed the locks. Police threatened to cite anyone who entered the property.

The church was one of several that initially defied the governor’s order. Most churches have moved to online services.

The church argued in its suit against Newsom, Lodi police and county health officials that the order was an abuse of power that criminalized communal worship while allowing people to frequent department stores, liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries and other businesses deemed essential.

The judge said that argument missed the point because shoppers were going to those businesses to purchase specific items, not to commune with each other. A more relevant comparison would be restaurants, concerts, movies and sporting events — secular places people gather that were also ordered closed.

Mendez said state and local stay-at-home orders were a valid exercise of emergency police powers and didn’t violate the church’s constitutional rights. Mendez noted that the Supreme Court over 100 years ago upheld the government’s right to exercise police powers to promote public safety during a public health crisis.

“During public health crises, new considerations come to bear, and government officials must ask whether even fundamental rights must give way to a deeper need to control the spread of infectious disease and protect the lives of society’s most vulnerable,” Mendez wrote.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. Most people recover.

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