Lodi church files lawsuit claiming stay-at-home order violates First Amendment

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LODI, Calif. (KTXL) — In a newly-filed lawsuit on behalf of the Cross Culture Christian Church in Lodi, the church argues that their First Amendment right to gather for religious purposes was violated when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued stay-at-home directives back in March.

“Religious freedom is a precious right but it should never be misused to harm other people or to risk people’s lives,” said Alex Luchenister, the associate legal director with Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Luchenister is normally fighting for religious protections. But now, he says granting religious exemption to churches could lead to increased spread of COVID-19. 

In the lawsuit, Cross Culture Christian Church argues that they should be deemed essential and that places considered essential are promoting gatherings where social distance is impractical.

“The public health behind it is that people are going to be there for a while,” said attorney Mark Reichel. “So, it’s not just a short encounter in the grocery stores.”

Earlier this month, San Joaquin County ordered the church to stop in-house services. 

The church argues that on Palm Sunday they were greeted by Lodi police who told them locks had been changed on the church building by the landlord. 

Reichel said at this time, there’s not a lot of case law on this unprecedented situation.  

“This is extremely, extremely rare. It’s referred to by the courts as a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence,” Reichel explained.

The Lodi church is just one of many churches across the nation that have filed similar lawsuits. 

“There’s probably been at least a dozen, more than a dozen of these lawsuits filed all around the country,” Luchenister said.

“In the state of Kansas, there is a federal court that has agreed with the churches and said you can remain open, the state cannot close you. That’s a federal district court in Kansas,” Reichel said. “A federal district court down in San Diego said the state can stop this.”

FOX40 reached out to an attorney representing the church numerous times but has yet to hear back.

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