California court bans discrimination against churches in Covid policies

Gavin Newsom (PHOTO: Justin Sullivan / Staff / Getty/Lifesite News)

SA court challenge of ‘irrational’ ban on religious gatherings moving forward

Houses of worship in California won a victory this week when a district judge permanently banned the state from imposing discriminatory Covid-related religious service restrictions.

The court also ordered California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, to pay $1.35 million (R18.7 million) in attorney fees and costs to Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry who sued the governor for banning indoor services.

“California may never again place discriminatory restrictions on churches and places of worship,” Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said regarding the decision, which Liberty Counsel won on behalf of the church and ministry.

Lifesite News reports that the court order states that California can no longer impose any COVID-related capacity restrictions on places of worship, unless specific numbers of Covid-related infections and hospital admissions are met. In that case, restrictions on churches cannot be any more severe than those “imposed on other similar gatherings of similar risk.”

The court application by the church in California has a counterpart in South Africa, where several groups are challenging government lockdown regulations in which religious gatherings were treated differently to other gatherings.

In an update on the status of the court challenges in SA, Advocate Nadene Badenhorst legal counsel for Freedom of Religion SA (FOR SA) says: “In January 2021, FOR SA instituted legal proceedings against government in the Johannesburg High Court to challenge the Lockdown Regulations with regard to religious gatherings. In particular, FOR SA is asking the court to find that the complete ban imposed on religious gatherings at the end of last year – while other gatherings were allowed to continue – was irrational and unconstitutional.

“Similar applications have been instituted by the South African National Christian Forum (SANCF), Solidariteit Helpende Hand and the Muslim Lawyers Association, all of which have been consolidated for hearing on the same date. Almost all the parties have now had opportunity to file their papers and heads of argument in the matter, and they will soon approach the Court to obtain a date on which the matter can be heard.”

The permanent injunction against Newsom, which is the first of its kind against a US state governor, cites several Supreme Court decisions following prior lawsuits against Newsom, as well as a lawsuit by the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

These lawsuits decried Covid policies, primarily in California, that unfairly banned attendance at churches while allowing similar gatherings at places offering so-called “essential services,” and even strip clubs. In November, a California judge ruled that Newsom could not restrict strip club gatherings, arguing that the entertainment there is “constitutionally protected speech.”

One of these Supreme Court decisions followed an earlier legal challenge by Harvest Rock Church, and resulted in the tossing of a California order banning all in-person worship.

The Harvest Rock Church v Newsom ruling was cited in turn in a decision that stopped enforcement California’s indoor religious services ban, after a Catholic church belonging to the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) was issued two $500 citations for celebrating Mass. 

In April, the Supreme Court ruled that California’s restrictions on at-home religious gatherings were unconstitutional, after Santa Clara County pastors sued. At this point, according to the New York Times, the brief document “expressed impatience with California’s federal appeals court,” the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, saying it had repeatedly disregarded the Supreme Court’s instructions.

“This is the fifth time the court has summarily rejected the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of California’s Covid restrictions on religious exercise,” the majority opinion said.

The latest court order also cements a prohibition of restrictions on singing and chanting in places of worship. Such restrictions were earlier upheld in California even after the Supreme Court allowed California churches to open up. Only after increasing losses before the US Supreme Court did Newsom quietly scrap his 10-month old Covid-19 church singing ban.

Even after the singing ban was kept in place, Harvest Rock Senior Pastor Ché Ahn “told his congregation that the church would defy the ban on singing,” reported CBN News. “Fifty percent of worship is singing. We’re gonna sing no matter what,” Ahn said at the time.

Pastor Ahn celebrates the victory as a foundation for future legal decisions.

“I am thrilled to see the complete reversal of the last discriminatory restrictions against churches in California, knowing this case will act as a precedent, not only in our state but also in our nation,” said Ahn.

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