Lawyers for a Pasadena church asking the U.S. Supreme Court to grant an injunction that would allow members to continue meeting in person while the High Court hears its case claim their client has “suffered under the unconstitutional yoke” of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order prohibiting all indoor religious services since July.
Attorneys for Harvest Rock church made the claim in the final reply brief regarding the church’s emergency petition for an injunction pending appeal in their federal lawsuit against Newsom’s health order.
“There can be no question that the challenged restrictions, if enforced, will cause irreparable harm. Indeed, the loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury,” the lawyers argue
A lower court has already ruled that the church’s First Amendment rights were not violated. The district court found that Newsom decided the church’s speech and its religious beliefs were fine, but the location where they were being expressed was not.
The state is attempting to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has surged like never before, rapidly increasing infection rates and hospitalizations. Harvest Rock has continued to meet illegally despite orders from the city to cease their indoor activities.
Newsom’s order does not bar anyone from attending services. The order prohibits meeting indoors. An order released on Friday specifically bars large gatherings but allows for outdoor religious gatherings and protests.
City officials have ordered the church to close its doors, but so far church leaders have remained defiant.
In August, Assistant City Prosecutor Michael Dowd warned church leaders that if the church continues to hold indoor gatherings, church staff and owners could be subjected to criminal penalties, as well as the closure of the church.
“Your compliance with these orders is not discretionary, it is mandatory,” wrote Dowd in the Aug. 13 letter to Harvest Rock Pastor Che Ahn. “Any violations in the future will subject your church, owners, administrators, operators, staff, and parishioners to the above-mentioned criminal penalties as well as the potential closure of your church.”
In a 2-1 decision on Oct. 1, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the church.
In the decision to deny the church’s request, the judges wrote that “In order to demonstrate that an injunction pending appeal is warranted, Harvest Rock must show that it is likely to succeed on the merits, that it is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in its favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest.”
According to the letter, people who attended these services as well as church staff were not complying with the relevant governmental orders concerning social distancing and the wearing of protective masks.
The city prosecutor’s office and the city code enforcement division have threatened the church with criminal charges, fines, and closure for being open for worship against the governor’s orders and local health orders. The letters threaten up to one year in prison, daily criminal charges, and $1,000 fines against the pastors, staff, and parishioners.
Ahn and other church leaders could face separate charges which carry a potential punishment of up to one year in jail and a fine for each violation. Ahn has committed to paying any fines levied against church members.
So far, the city has taken no action against church leaders.
The appeal could allow the conservative-leaning court to reinstate indoor services in California as cases and hospitalization cases spike. Last week, the court ruled in favor of New York churches.
In that ruling, the High Court said, “Not only is there no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID–19, but there are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services. Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. Before allowing this to occur, we have a duty to conduct a serious examination of the need for such a drastic measure.”