California Church Asks Judge to Lift Pandemic Restrictions on Indoor Services

The Harvest Rock Church included this photo of California Governor Gavin Newsom dining at the exclusive restaurant French Laundry in a brief with the Supreme Court. (Image via Courthouse News)

(CN) — Weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a federal judge’s ruling on Harvest Rock Church’s challenge to California’s indoor gathering restrictions, an attorney for the Christian church said in district court Friday the state unfairly targeted religious gatherings with “harsh treatment.”

The Christian organization, which has over 160 member churches across the Golden State, sued to overturn California’s coronavirus-related restrictions limiting in-person worship services.

The rules violate the church’s right to practice its religion and unfairly expose its religious community to potential criminal penalties, the church said in its lawsuit.

Harvest Rock Church secured an emergency injunction from the nation’s high court on Dec. 3, vacating U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal’s denial of its request for injunctive relief from California’s public health order.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to Bernal’s court with instructions to reconsider his ruling in light of the high court’s opinion in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, which overturned New York’s Covid-19-related limits on indoor religious services. 

In a telephonic hearing Friday, Daniel Schmid of Liberty Counsel, an attorney representing Harvest Rock, told Bernal the Catholic Diocese decision means California’s restrictions are subject to the judicial review standard of strict scrutiny since they’re harsher than rules placed on secular activities.

“The California government’s discriminatory regulation violates the First Amendment,” Schmid told Bernal. “Catholic Diocese compels lower courts to issue a preliminary injunction.”

Bernal asked Schmid to explain exactly how California’s public health order unfairly targets the church.

“Every tier has harsher and harsher treatment for religious gatherings,” Schmid said, citing the state’s color-coded system for public restrictions which increases the severity of rules based on how widespread Covid-19 is in a county. 

After Schmid claimed it’s unfair for non-religious groupings of people at grocery stores and malls to continue, Bernal said the proper gatherings to compare under California’s rules would be settings like concert halls and movie theaters. 

Seth Goldstein, a California deputy attorney general, told Bernal the state’s indoor gathering restrictions are neutral, backed by undisputed scientific evidence and that the opinion in Catholic Diocese doesn’t require strict scrutiny of such balanced rules.

In court papers, attorneys for California said that even if strict scrutiny applies, the court should find the standard satisfied given the state’s compelling interest in reducing the spread of Covid-19.

“Throughout the current pandemic, the state has been fine-tuning its restrictions and trying less restrictive alternatives in light of developing scientific knowledge and changing circumstances, as strict scrutiny requires,” the brief said. “This court should not lift restrictions on particularly risky activities and create the danger of “super-spreader” events at the very time that our health care system is least able to deal with them.”

Bernal took the matter under submission and said he would likely issue a ruling Monday, Dec. 21.

California shattered its record for Covid-19 deaths and new infection cases Thursday as the statewide health care system faces an unprecedented surge of patients and Southern California ICU capacity has fallen to 0%.

The surge has pushed hospitals to the brink, with over 16,000 Californians hospitalized with Covid-19 and nearly 3,400 in ICUs across the state according to the Public Health Department.

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