Harvest Rock Church has been conducting religious services despite an order by Gov. Gavin Newsom and the city of Pasadena 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 church has appealed its case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and met on Sunday in defiance of a federal ruling and state and city orders.
The orders allow churches to meet outdoors. Many churches are meeting online.
The church claims its First Amendment rights are being violated and that Newsom has encouraged protests by thousands of people despite the order.
But in August, Judge Jesus G. Bernal ruled against an injunction that would have allowed the church to continue meeting.
“Plaintiffs argue that the Orders are not neutral in application because they restrict indoor religious services but not outdoor protests,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “But because indoor activities carry a much greater risk of COVID-19 spread, indoor religious services are not comparable to outdoor protests. “Accordingly, how the Orders treat outdoor protests is irrelevant to whether the Orders’ restriction on indoor religious services is constitutional.”
The judge also ruled that lawyers for Harvest Rock failed to prove that the ban on indoor services is based on the content of the speech being used in church services.
“The Court concludes they are not: the Orders restrict activities based on the location and nature of the gathering, rather than the content of the speech at those gatherings.”
On Aug. 13, the city’s chief assistant city prosecutor warned church leaders that if they continue to hold indoor gatherings, church staff and owners could be subject to criminal penalties, as well as the closure of the church.
Harvest Rock Pastor Ché 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.
“Your compliance with these orders is not discretionary, it is mandatory,” wrote Assistant City Prosecutor Michael Dowd in a letter to 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.”
Ahn said in a Facebook video released in August that the church will pay for citations received by parishioners defying city and state orders to attend his church.
“What I want to do is encourage you, and I have encouraged all those with underlying conditions to stay home,” Ahn said. “I’ve encouraged the elderly to stay home. I want to encourage you that if you feel, hey I don’t want to get a ticket, please stay home.
“Now, if you do show up and you get a ticket, Harvest Rock Church is going to underwrite that ticket, we’ll pay for your citation.”
In the video, Ahn said he felt like there has to be some defiance to the order to end indoor religious meetings.