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Supreme Court Vacates Lower Court’s Ruling Against Pasadena-Based Harvest Rock Church

Appeals court ordered to consider High Court’s ruling in New York Case

Published on Thursday, December 3, 2020 | 10:50 am

A Pasadena church won a major victory Thursday when the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a lower court order denying the church an injunction that would allow its congregation to meet indoors while the church sued the state in a First Amendment lawsuit.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will now have to consider the High Court’s ruling that allowed churches to reopen in New York and rule again in the case.

“The September 2 order of the United States District Court for the Central District of California is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit with instructions to remand to the District Court for further consideration in light of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo,” SCOTUS ruled.

Harvest Rock has continued to meet indoors despite a health order by Gov. Gavin Newsom that only allows outdoor worship. In court documents, lawyers for the plaintiffs have claimed violations of the First Amendment’s Freedom of Religion Clause.

Indoor worship was banned as part of Newsom’s Stay-at-Home order in March. Newsom’s latest order bans large gatherings, except for outdoor religious services and protests 

Newsom is considering issuing another Stay-at-Home order as the virus surges to unprecedented levels. On Wednesday, the state reported 113 deaths and 20,759 new cases of the virus.

If the virus continues to spread unchecked, the state could run out of beds in hospital intensive care units (ICU) within the next three weeks, according to projections. 

“This is the tipping point,” Newsom tweeted on Monday. “CA has worked hard to prepare for a surge — but we can’t sustain the record high cases we’re seeing.”

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September that the content of the speech was not an issue. The issue lies with speech taking place indoors before large groups.

In the 2-1 decision denying the church’s request, the appellate court 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.”

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the case Brooklyn v. Cuomo that such restrictions violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment because the regulations treated houses of worship more harshly than comparable secular facilities.

“Not only is there no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID-19, but there are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services,” the High Court held.

“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area,” the justices wrote. “But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”

That ruling also is not final, according to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Like the Pasadena appellate court ruling, the Supreme Court sent the case back down to a lower court to decide. 

City officials have sent the church a cease and desist letter.

The city prosecutor’s office and the city code enforcement division have threatened the church with criminal charges, fines, and closure for being open for worship against the governor’s orders and local health orders. The letters threaten up to one year in prison, daily criminal charges, and $1,000 fines against the pastors, staff, and parishioners.

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