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Harvest Rock Lawyers Want Full Ninth Circuit To Hear Appeal

Published on Wednesday, October 21, 2020 | 11:14 am

Lawyers for a local church denied an injunction that would have allowed members to continue gathering inside the church while  an earlier decision barring those meetings is appealed want their case heard by the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Liberty Counsel just requested the full panel of judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to hear our case involving Harvest Rock Church,” wrote attorneys for the Liberty Counsel, which is representing Harvest Rock Church.

The church has been holding indoor services despite an order by Gov. Gavin Newsom barring indoor gatherings as a way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

If the request is granted, the hearing will be held “en banc,” or before all 11 judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A loss there would allow the attorneys for Harvest Rock to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 2-1 decision on Oct. 1, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the church.

In the decision to deny the church’s request, the 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.”

City officials have ordered the church to close its doors, but so far church leaders have remained defiant. The city has not fined church leaders or issued citations to members of the congregation.

The state’s health and safety laws allow local health officers to take any preventive measures that may be necessary to protect and preserve the public health from any state of emergency declared by the governor after a local health emergency has been declared.

In August, Assistant City Prosecutor Michael Dowd warned church leaders 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.

“Your compliance with these orders is not discretionary, it is mandatory,” wrote Dowd in the Aug. 13 letter to Harvest Rock 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. Ahn has committed to paying any fines levied against church members.

So far, the city has taken no action against church leaders. 

Despite assertions by attorneys for the church that Newsom’s order does not allow religious gatherings, the state order does allow for outdoor church services.

Officials with the church have argued that their First Amendment right to freedom of religion has been violated.

A federal judge has ruled that the content of the speech was not an issue. The issue lies with speech taking place indoors before large groups.

“The Orders apply the same restrictions to worship services as they do to other indoor congregate events, such as lectures and movie theaters. Some congregate activities are completely prohibited in every county, such as attending concerts and spectating sporting events,” the court ruled.

The church has also contended that Newsom looked the other way when it came to demonstrators in California, some without masks or facial coverings, protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota. 

Newsom’s order allows outdoor gatherings, but not indoor meetings.

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