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U.S. appeals court upholds California’s coronavirus restrictions on churches

Evangelist John C. Hagee speaks at Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena.
John C. Hagee, a Texas evangelist, speaks at Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena in 2014.
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

A federal appeals court decided 2 to 1 Thursday to uphold Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus restrictions on indoor worship during the pandemic.

The majority of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel said California’s health orders on churches did not discriminate against religious expression.

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

Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church asked for an emergency motion to block Newsom’s health orders on churches, but judges Johnnie B. Rawlinson, a Clinton appointee, and Morgan Christen, an Obama appointee, voted to reject the request.

Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, a Reagan appointee, dissented.

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“At present, in 18 counties in California — home to more than 15 million residents and including its most populous county, Los Angeles — indoor religious worship services are completely prohibited,” O’Scannlain wrote. “California insists that this drastic measure is necessary to fight the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic — a worthy and indeed compelling goal of any state.”

But O’Scannlain said those same counties allow indoor malls, nail salons, meatpacking plants and laundromats to be open, and the Constitution does not allow the state to apply rules more aggressively to religious activities than to secular ones.

He said the Constitution does not protect the state from applying health rules more aggressively to religious activities than secular ones.

In a similar case brought by a California church, the U.S. Supreme Court decided 5 to 4 in May to allow Newson’s health restrictions to continue.

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Although the 9th Circuit panel denied Harvest Rock’s emergency motion, the court will continue to review the case. Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a religious liberties group, said he was grateful for O’Scannlain’s dissent. It was more than three times as long as the majority decision.

“We look forward to the next round at the Court of Appeals on the full merits of our request to block the 1st Amendment violations,” Staver said. “While the virus does not discriminate between nonreligious and religious gatherings, Gov. Newsom does.”

This summer, Harvest Rock was openly defying state and local orders against indoor church services.

The Pasadena-based church, which also has houses of worship in Corona and Irvine, is led by Pastors Ché and Sue Ahn.

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Harvest Rock’s lawsuit, filed earlier this year, claimed that Newsom’s order prohibiting indoor services violated church members’ constitutional liberties.

“It violates our 1st Amendment rights and you know the state should not establish a religion but also not interfere with the preemptive exercise thereof,” Ahn told CBSN-Los Angeles earlier this year.

Harvest Rock is hardly the only church in California known to have defied the state and local public health orders. As of August, Community Grace Church in Sun Valley was continuing to hold Sunday services, and a judge that month blocked Los Angeles County’s attempt to shut them down.

In July, the coronavirus spread through the Christian Life Center in Ontario, with fatal consequences. The church’s leader, Bishop Abel Jimenez, and his two daughters died from COVID-19, and more than a dozen other family members tested positive as well.


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