Attorneys on Monday will present oral arguments before a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to allow members of a local church to meet indoors while appealing state and local orders prohibiting large gatherings.
Harvest Rock Church, which has continued meeting in person despite orders by Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted to stop the spread of the coronavirus, met again on Sunday.
“Gov. Newsom’s orders discriminate internally and externally. Internally, the orders permit nonreligious activities without limitation in churches, but ban religious activity,” according to lawyers with Liberty Counsel, which is representing the church. “Externally, the orders give nonreligious activity preferential treatment while banning similar religious activities in houses of worship.”
Newsom’s order does not ban religious activities, and order allows church members to meet outdoors. A previous ruling by U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal found Newsom’s order does not take issue with the content of the church’s speech, but instead focuses on where the speech is taking place.
“The orders restrict activities based on the location and nature of the gathering, rather than the content of the speech at those gatherings,” Bernal ruled.
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,” Dowd wrote.
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.