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Local Church Goes Before Judge Next Week, Asking Court to Block Indoor Religious Services Ban

Harvest Rock Church is suing Gov. Newsom over order to shutter during pandemic

Published on Thursday, August 6, 2020 | 11:05 am

A judge next week will hear a Pasadena church’s request for an emergency temporary restraining order to ban authorities from enforcing an order by Gov. Gavin Newsom that would force churches to close indoor services to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Harvest Rock Church has been conducting services despite an order by Newsom to stop singing or chanting indoors due to fears that such activities could lead to the spread of respiratory droplets, thus increasing the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.

The hearing on the motion for a preliminary injunction is set for 2 p.m. Wednesday, according to a scheduling order signed by Judge Jesus G. Bernal.

In its lawsuit, the Pasadena church claims Newsom’s ban violates the right to religious freedom clause of the First Amendment and the “cherished liberties for which so many have fought and died.”

On its website, the Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit religious liberty organization that promotes litigation related to evangelical Christian values and is backing the lawsuit, said “CA Gov. Gavin Newsom was forced to defend his illegal church restrictions as he was ordered to file a response yesterday to our lawsuit.” The message was written Tuesday by Mathew Staver, who leads the Liberty Counsel.

In July, U.S. District Court Judge Otis Wright ruled that Harvest Rock failed to provide proper notice to Newsom of either its lawsuit or its motion for a TRO, and did not meet the “stringent” notice requirements to obtain an emergency TRO.

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


Open and Shut Case

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

Like most businesses, houses of worship were eventually allowed to reopen, but only if they followed health and safety guidelines by limiting attendance.

After the reopening led to a resurgence of the virus, singing and chanting were banned in places of worship.

Many churches have started holding outdoor services, which is legal under Newsom’s order, provided congregants continue to wear masks and socially distance. Others have continued to meet via Zoom,

According to City News Service, church leaders claim Harvest Rock, which has 162 member churches throughout the state, including campuses in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, “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.”


Defining the Order

Since the pandemic began, some church leaders across the country defied orders to close and have continued in-person services. In some cases, the results have been deadly.

In Virginia, for instance, 66-year-old Gerald O. Glenn, bishop and founder of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in the city of Chesterfield, died from the virus in April after defying orders to shut down.

In March, according to NBC News, Glenn told congregants that he believed God was bigger than the virus. Four of his family members later tested positive for COVID-19. Glenn’s daughter told CNN that the church had taken precautions, including hand washing and social distancing.  

The Holy Ghost Parish in Houston canceled services after the Rev. Donnell Kirchner died and five parishioners tested positive for the virus. The church resumed celebrating Mass on May 2, after Texas started to loosen its stay-at-home restrictions.

Parishioners in Louisiana and Arkansas also died after contracting the virus at church events. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), three people died after 35 people tested positive following the gathering at the Arkansas house of worship. An additional 26 people who did not attend the church became infected with COVID-19 after coming into contact with infected members of the congregation. One of those people also died. 

“Whenever a group of people from different households gather in groups there is an increased risk that the COVID-19 virus may be transmitted among the gathering and into the community at large,” Dr. James Watt of the state Department of Public Health wrote in a court declaration supporting Newsom’s order. “The risk increases commensurately with the size of the group (other factors being equal) as well as when members of the group are in close proximity to one another. Thus, in-person gatherings pose a heightened risk of transmission of COVID-19.”

Reporter Brian Day contributed to this report.

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