A group of pastors have combined forces and are suing several officials in California over the state’s ban on public gatherings — including church services — amid the coronavirus pandemic, arguing the order violates their constitutional rights.
None of the activities listed includes allowing California citizens to exercise their rights by attending religious services.
The lawsuit lists Newsom, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and officials in San Bernardino and Riverside counties as defendants.
“Defendants, in a gross abuse of their power, have seized the Coronavirus pandemic to expand their authority by unprecedented lengths, depriving Plaintiffs and all other residents of California of fundamental rights protected by the U.S. and California Constitutions, including freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, and due process and equal protection under the law,” the lawsuit reads.
James Dean Moffatt, the senior pastor at Church Unlimited in Indio, was fined $1,000 after he held a Palm Sunday church service, according to the lawsuit.
Moffatt is a plaintiff on the lawsuit, along with Pastor Brenda Wood of Word of Life Ministries International in Riverside, Pastor Patrick Scales of Shield of Faith Family Church in Fontana and Wendy Gish, who attends Scales’ church.
On behalf of the three pastors and Gish, the nonprofit civil liberties group the Center for American Liberty and the San Francisco-based Dhillon Law Group filed a lawsuit Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California accusing state officials of criminalizing the First and Fourteenth Amendments by blocking the free exercise of religion.
“Criminalizing individual participation at a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other house of worship clearly violates the First Amendment,” Center for American Liberty CEO Harmeet K. Dhillon said in a statement.
“The state and localities have granted sweeping exceptions to the shutdown orders for favored businesses and professions, while specifically targeting people of faith and decreeing to religious institutions that it is ‘good enough’ that they be allowed to offer streaming video services,” she added.
“The state does not get to dictate the method of worship to the faithful,” Dhillon said.
The legal filing goes on to say that officials in San Bernardino and Riverside counties made exemptions for Christians to attend modified Easter services, and argues those exemptions should be made permanent.
“This past weekend both San Bernardino County and Riverside County allowed practicing Christians to congregate, in varying capacities, outside their homes to celebrate Easter,” Dhillon said.
“While giving in to criticism and respecting Christians’ right to religious liberty on Easter Sunday was undeniably the right decision by County Supervisors, the government may not selectively license religious liberty to Christians on Easter Sunday,” she added.
During a news conference Friday, Newsom urged people to stay at home for Easter.
“Practice your faith but do so in a way that allows you to keep yourself healthy,” he said, according to the Desert Sun.
Dhillon said that not every church or religious organization is capable of streaming services for those wishing to worship from home and added, “nor should they be required to.”
“If a Californian is able to go to Costco or the local marijuana shop or liquor store and buy goods in a responsible, socially distanced manner, then he or she must be allowed to practice their faith using the same precautions,” she said.
The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of Californians of all faiths, argues that is is the duty of the courts to defend constitutional principles that officials “so brazenly violate.”
The suit was filed as incidents have occurred nationwide preventing Americans from practicing their faith — raising questions about whether governments are exercising too much authority in enforcing social distancing policies.
Attorney General William Barr has been monitoring how officials are regulating church services, according to a spokeswoman.
“During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services,” Barr spokeswoman Kerri Kupec tweeted Saturday.
“While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!” Kupec added.
During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services. While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!
— KerriKupecDOJ (@KerriKupecDOJ) April 12, 2020
Barr described some COVID-19 lockdown restrictions as “draconian” during an interview last week with Fox News host Laura Ingraham.
He also said that some of those restrictions should be relaxed in May.
“I’m very concerned about the slippery slope in terms of continuing encroachments on personal liberty,” Barr said.
“I do think during the emergency, appropriate, reasonable steps are fine,” he added.
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