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Federal Judge Denies Emergency Order in Pasadena Church Singing Case

Published on Monday, July 20, 2020 | 10:46 am

A Pasadena church with campuses in Irvine and Corona lost its bid today to have a federal judge issue an emergency order halting the enforcement of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on singing and chanting in places of worship — enacted to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry Inc. filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction on Saturday, alleging that the governor’s statewide ban violates the right to religious freedom clause of the First Amendment, and the “cherished liberties for which so many have fought and died.”

U.S. District Judge Otis Wright wrote in his Monday ruling that Harvest Rock failed to provide notice to Newsom of either its lawsuit or motion for a TRO, and did not meet the “stringent” requirements to obtain an emergency TRO without notice.

The judge ordered that the defendants be served with the complaint and motion no later than July 27 and gave Newsom until Aug. 3 to file a response.

Church representative Mathew Staver said the church is “pleased that the court has set an expedited briefing schedule on the request for a preliminary injunction. We are appreciative for the court setting this case on a fast track.”

Regarding the TRO request, he said that because the motion was filed early Saturday morning, there was no way to serve the governor.

“Even today, the state office is not accepting personal service,”

Staver said. “The lawsuit has been emailed to governor today at an email address for service.”

In Harvest Rock’s Sunday service — livestreamed on YouTube — Pastor Che Ahn addressed the matter, asking congregants to pray to win the court case and what he said was a battle against the “demonic forces trying to shut down the church in America.”

There was no immediate response to an email sent to Newsom’s press office seeking comment.

Recent guidelines issued by the state Department of Public Health, through Newsom, discourage singing or chanting indoors due to fears that it increases the spread of respiratory droplets, thus increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19 among a crowd.

The church maintains that in times of “trouble and distress,” congregants “are to sing to the Lord even more and to sing aloud to him,” according to the 74-page suit filed late Friday in Los Angeles federal court.

The emergency request for a TRO was lodged with the court early Saturday.

Harvest Rock alleges that public health guidelines unfairly target places of worship over other institutions because Newsom supported protests over George Floyd’s in-custody death and police brutality that included chanting during the pandemic.

“The governor cannot claim a compelling, legitimate or even rational interest in his orders when he has permitted and encouraged mass gatherings of thousands of protesters to engage in the very activity he claims poses a massive danger to California if it takes place in plaintiff’s churches,” the suit states.

Harvest Rock, which has 162 member churches throughout the state, including campuses in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, alleges that 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.”

A similar lawsuit by three places of worship in the Southland was lodged in April in Los Angeles against Newsom and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Deemed a nonessential service, churches were closed in March amid Newsom’s stay-at-home orders. Restrictions subsequently eased and houses of worship were given approval to welcome worshipers, provided they followed health and safety guidelines limiting attendanc

In Harvest Rock’s Sunday service, the pastor asked for prayers that the church be deemed “essential.”

Newsom began tightening protocols at the beginning of this month during a resurgence of the pandemic, and temporarily banned singing and chanting in places of worship.

“Practices and performances present an increased likelihood for transmission of COVID-19 through contaminated exhaled droplets and should occur through alternative methods like internet streaming,” according to the state Health Department.

In-person services are permitted if proper measures, including social distancing and use of masks, are followed, and all houses of worship are required to limit attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees.

The church contends that failure to gather in person for religious worship services “is disobedience to the Lord for which (the church) will be held divinely accountable.”

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