Judge Denies LA County Church’s Request to Can Indoor Worship Ban

(CN) — A federal judge Monday again denied a California church’s request to block state restrictions on indoor gatherings, saying the church is still free to hold outdoor religious services and that lifting the rules would likely contribute to the spread of Covid-19. 

“If plaintiffs were to immediately resume numerically uncapped indoor worship, it is likely that this indoor worship — like any indoor activity involving members of multiple households — would contribute to the spread of Covid-19, straining already-stressed public health infrastructure and filling already-packed ICUs,” U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal said in his 14-page order denying Harvest Rock Church’s request to overturn California’s rules.

The Christian organization, which has over 160 member churches across the Golden State, had submitted a second request for a temporary restraining order to block the Golden State’s coronavirus-related restrictions limiting in-person worship services.

Attorneys for Harvest Rock Church argued the state had unfairly targeted the church with “harsh” restrictions that violate its constitutional right to freely practice its religion. But Bernal rejected the claim, writing in his order Monday that Californians can attend outdoor religious gatherings but may not do so in ways that potentially transmit Covid-19.

“The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” Bernal wrote. “The First Amendment may not be used to make it one.”

Attorneys for Harvest Rock Church filed a Ninth Circuit appeal following Bernal’s ruling Monday and also asked to be allowed to worship indoors until the appeal has been decided.

Daniel Schmid of Liberty Counsel, an attorney representing Harvest Rock, told Courthouse News he’s confident Bernal’s ruling will be overturned.

“It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo,” Schmid said in a phone interview Tuesday. “A total prohibition on indoor religious services cannot pass constitutional muster under Roman Catholic Diocese.”

Schmid also clarified that Los Angeles County’s recently revised health order allowing for indoor faith-based practices with physical distancing does not supersede California’s regional order which includes a total ban on indoor religious services. 

“It has no practical effect for our clients,” Schmid said of the county’s revised order.

Bernal also rejected the church’s claim that California’s public health orders are unfair, writing that state guidelines are “narrowly tailored” based on varying levels of risk associated with certain activities. 

“If ‘narrowly tailored’ does not mean based on the specific mechanism of Covid-19 infection with sliding levels of restriction based on scientific likelihood of viral spread in any given scenario, it means nothing,” Bernal wrote. “California’s blueprint regulations track levels of risk that infectious airborne droplets will enter the eyes, noses, and mouths of previously uninfected individuals, just as public health experts have advised.”

Bernal also ruled that California’s “blueprint” for reopening is not subject to the judicial review standard of strict scrutiny, which the church had lobbied for, but even if it was, it would likely survive because restrictions serve a compelling state interest.

Seth Goldstein, a California deputy attorney general, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Harvest Rock secured an emergency injunction from the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 3, vacating Bernal’s denial this past August of its first 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. 

On Monday, Bernal said in his ruling that unlike New York, California treats religious services more favorably than certain secular gatherings.

“In Pasadena, two people from separate households cannot gather together outside unless they are engaged in worship or political expression,” Bernal wrote. “This is not the especially harsh treatment of New York State, or the casino favoritism of Nevada.”

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