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Court Refuses to Hear Harvest Rock Request, Grants Newsom Delay

Next hearing scheduled for Dec. 18

Published on Wednesday, December 9, 2020 | 1:04 pm

The state scored a small victory in the Harvest Rock Church case.

After successfully petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to vacate a lower court ruling, lawyers for Harvest Rock Church took a victory lap and immediately requested an injunction that would allow the Pasadena church to continue meeting indoors.

But in a 10-minute hearing on Tuesday a district court judge refused to hear that request and instead granted the state a delay so officials could file a brief by Monday, followed by a hearing on Dec. 18.

The church has renewed its application to the Supreme Court asking for an injunction.

“The delay by the district court has been a pattern,” wrote attorney Matt Staver. “The Supreme Court has already issued to this court, and every other, a roadmap that leads to one destination — that the restrictions on churches and places of worship in California violate the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause.”

In September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the content of the speech at the church was not an issue. The issue was with speech taking place indoors before large groups.

In the 2-1 decision denying the church’s request, the appellate court 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.”

On Dec. 3, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s orders involving the emergency petition of the churches and directed the district court to reconsider the ruling in light of the High Court’s decision in granting an injunction for churches and synagogues in New York.

Lawyers had requested an injunction for a Dec. 6 church service.

“Plaintiffs need immediate relief by this Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, because they face the unconscionable and unconstitutional choice of attending religious worship services or facing criminal punishment, jail, daily fines, and the closure of their Churches,” according to court papers.

“And, Harvest Rock Church has been explicitly threatened with daily criminal punishment, fines, imprisonment, and closure of its Church for violating the Governor’s unconstitutional color-coded regime of religious discrimination.”

Newsom’s new health order went into effect Sunday night. That bars large gatherings except for outdoor protests and worship services. 

“COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased dramatically over the last two months nationwide,” Newsom tweeted on Tuesday. 

On Sunday, Newsom’s latest order went into effect which once again forces non-essential businesses to close their doors and prohibits large gatherings. The order makes an exception for outdoor religious gatherings and protests.  

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the case Brooklyn v. Cuomo that such restrictions violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment because the regulations treated houses of worship more harshly than comparable secular facilities.

“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,” the High Court held.

“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area,” the justices wrote. “But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”

That ruling also is not final, according to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Like the Pasadena appellate court ruling, the Supreme Court sent the case back down to a lower court to decide. 

Pasadena officials have sent the church a cease and desist letter.

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.

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