Lawyers for Harvest Rock Church won a split decision in the church’s latest court battle for an injunction that would allow the Pasadena church to hold indoor services while its lawsuit is decided.
The good news for the church is that followers can meet indoors with 100 to 200 people present in counties located in the red and orange tiers where the spread of COVID-19 is respectively considered substantial and moderate.
The bad news is the church still cannot meet in the purple tier, places where the virus is widespread, such as Los Angeles County, including Pasadena.
Lawyers for Harvest Rock announced they would file an appeal with the Supreme Court — again.
“We will return to the Supreme Court for the second time. Striking down a restriction of 100 and 200 people in Tiers 2-3 and upholding a total ban in Tier 1 makes no sense. California’s total ban on worship since July 13 is the most severe in the country,” said attorney Matt Staver.
“This will not stand,” Staver wrote. “The High Court has already issued a clear road map that leads to the ultimate conclusion that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban of worship is unconstitutional.”
On Dec. 3, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a U.S. district court order involving an emergency petition filed by the church and directed the district court to reconsider in light of the High Court’s previous ruling granting an injunction for churches and synagogues in New York.
However, the New York ruling largely rested on a health order treating churches the same way as “comparable businesses.”
It was not a First Amendment lawsuit like the one that Harvest Rock has filed.
In August, city officials sent church leaders a cease and desist order and threatened to fine them if they continued meeting indoors.
The letter states that the city of Pasadena will continue to enforce the governor’s orders “until the present emergency ends.”
So far, the church has not complied. It was not known if church leaders have been cited.
The virus is running rampant in Southern California and has just about filled up intensive care unit beds across the region.
Moreover, it is not just Harvest Rock Church that has been threatened with criminal penalties and daily fines; it is also every pastor, staff member, visitor, and parishioner.
So far, the city has not arrested anyone in connection with the church.
The U.S. Court of Appeals requested a supplemental briefing by the parties to address several issues including the impact of the L.A. County Order on the case, the church’s challenge to a singing and chanting ban, and its challenge to the regional Stay-at-Home Order.
On Dec. 22, U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal denied a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Newsom’s stay-at-home orders.
The church immediately appealed Bernal’s ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
According to an article in Courthouse News, when asked to explain exactly how California’s public health order unfairly targets the church, the Harvest Rock attorneys compared church gatherings to grocery stores and malls.
However, Bernal said that movie theaters and concert halls were a more apt comparison.
Seth Goldstein, a California deputy attorney general, told Bernal the state’s indoor gathering restrictions are neutral, backed by undisputed scientific evidence.
“Throughout the current pandemic, the state has been fine-tuning its restrictions and trying less restrictive alternatives in light of developing scientific knowledge and changing circumstances, as strict scrutiny requires,” the brief said.
“This court should not lift restrictions on particularly risky activities and create the danger of ‘super-spreader’ events at the very time that our healthcare system is least able to deal with them.”
In October, Bernal ruled that the church’s right to free speech was not being violated and that Newsom’s order instead opposed where the speech was occurring.