California Church Gets High Court Injunction Against Virus Limits

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is seen empty without its congregation on Holy on April 10, 2020, as Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, second from left, leads the nation’s Catholics in praying during a National Moment of Prayer in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, Pool)

WASHINGTON (CN) — A week after the divided court blocked New York virus limits on houses of worship, the U.S. Supreme Court granted an emergency injunction Thursday to a California church facing similar restrictions.

Mat Staver, an attorney with Liberty Counsel who represented Harvest Rock Church in the case, said in a statement Thursday it was past time to end “these unconstitutional restrictions on places of worship.”  

“The handwriting is now on the wall,” Staver said in a statement. “The final days of Governor Gavin Newson’s ‘color-coded executive edicts’ banning worship are numbered and coming to an end.” 

A Christian organization with 162 member churches across California, the Harvest Rock Church had argued that the government’s attendance restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic were discriminatory as religious houses or worship are not granted the same exemptions that nonreligious gatherings are given.

“For the governor, Covid-19 restrictions are apparently optional and penalty free,” the church had argued in an emergency application for relief last month. “But for churches or anyone worshipping in their own home with someone who does not live there, Covid-19 restrictions are mandatory and enforce via criminal penalties.”

Governor Gavin Newsom has taken heat in recent weeks after he was photographed apparently not following his own protocols while dining at a very upscale Napa restaurant called French Laundry. The church’s brief also cites Newsom’s support over the summer of mass protests.

Though the Supreme Court in May had rejected another church’s challenge to California’s gathering limits, the makeup of the court is now markedly different following the death in September of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and rapid confirmation of her replacement, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, herself a devout Catholic.

With Barrett in place, the court ruled last week that New York’s restrictions on religious services were severe and had to be enjoined.

Today’s order is just a paragraph long, with no noted dissents.

In its opposition brief, California officials noted the Ninth Circuit rejected Harvest Rock Church’s appeal that compared indoor worship services to secular activities like grocery shopping, which do not involve congregating for extended periods of time. California said there was also no evidence refuting its experts who testified to the increased risk of contracting Covid-19 while “in indoor congregate activities, such as in-person worship services.” 

“We recognize that the current restrictions interfere with Plaintiffs’ legitimate interest in participating in indoor worship service — and the state is committed to relaxing those restrictions as soon as public health circumstances allow, as it has in the recent past,” the brief states.

Seth Goldstein, a deputy attorney general for California, did not return a request for comment Thursday.

With 20,759 new Covid-19 cases and 19,324 coronavirus deaths recorded as of Tuesday, California has marked two weeks of positivity rates hovering at nearly 7%. 

California’s color-coded blueprint for reopening communities with high rates of infections launched in August. Only six of California’s 58 counties do not meet Covid-19 infection rates to warrant the highest level of restriction in the purple tier, shuttering nonessential businesses across the state.

Though Los Angeles County has gone so far as to bar outdoor dining, Superior Court Judge James Chalfant appeared skeptical of the measure at a hearing Wednesday in a case mounted by the California Restaurant Association.

The county barred outdoor dining last month when LA’s daily case average surpassed 4,000. On Wednesday, there were nearly 6,000 new cases reported.

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