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City Warns Leaders of Noncompliant Church They Could Face Criminal Charges

Harvest Rock continues indoor gatherings despite loss in court

Published on Wednesday, August 19, 2020 | 12:15 pm

In a letter to leaders of a local church, the city’s chief assistant city prosecutor warned that if the church continues to hold indoor gatherings, church staff and owners could be subject to criminal penalties as well as the closure of the church.

Despite an order by Gov. Gavin Newsom that prohibits indoor gatherings to help control the spread of the coronavirus, church leaders at Harvest Rock continue to hold services attended by dozens of people.

Earlier this month a judge ruled against the church’s efforts to obtain an injunction that would prohibit the enforcement of the order.

“Your compliance with these orders is not discretionary, it is mandatory,” wrote Assistant City Prosecutor Michael Dowd in an Aug. 13 letter to 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.”

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 or the wearing of protective masks.

Ahn and other church leaders could face separate charges carrying a potential punishment of up to one year in jail and a fine for each violation.

Harvest Rock, which has 162 member churches throughout the state, including campuses in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, claims it “cannot fulfill its vital ministry and sincere religious beliefs without gathering together in person, and that it cannot effectively engage in its constitutionally protected free exercise of religion on the Internet.”

In person services are allowed as long they are held outdoors. 

The church has been holding indoor services despite an order by Newsom enacted to help prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. The order does not bar churches from meeting outdoors, provided social distancing guidelines are followed. Other churches are meeting online.

On its website, the Liberty Counsel, which represents the church, said it had received “criminal threats” and claimed Newsom’s ban violates the right to religious freedom clause of the First Amendment.

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “The city of Pasadena, like Gov. Gavin Newsom, encourages thousands of people to gather for mass protests, but now considers in-person worship to be a criminal offense. These actions of the city of Pasadena and Gov. Gavin Newsom are akin to repressive foreign regimes, not America where the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion. The First Amendment erects a wall which the state may not breach to close churches and incarcerate pastors and parishioners.”

But a federal judge and the nation’s highest court has sided with Newsom.

Following the oral argument, Judge Jesus G. Bernal denied the request for a preliminary injunction on Aug. 12.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a similar plea by South Bay United Pentecostal Church’s attempt to overturn the state’s coronavirus restrictions on in-person religious services.

Chief Justice John Roberts voted to uphold the state’s right to impose limits on congregations in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Roberts wrote in the opinion.

Churches were initially deemed a nonessential service in Newsom’s March stay-at-home orders and were ordered to close.

“This city, county, state, and country are facing an unprecedented and catastrophic health emergency,” Dowd wrote. “It is the duty of everyone to manage our lives in ways that will not do harm to others. Your compliance with the lawful orders of the responsible government officials is paramount to stopping the further spread and infection of this lethal disease. Your future compliance is expected and appreciated.”

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