[guest post by Dana]
Three pastors from two different counties in California and a church congregant are suing Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and other public officials in federal court claiming Newsom and officials unfairly prevented people from attending church services and criminalized “the free exercise of religion,” The Sacramento Bee reports.
In order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, states have implemented stay-at-home orders and limited public gatherings. California began stay-at-home orders March 19 along with a mandate to close non-essential businesses.
But some faith-based communities have insisted on gathering despite health recommendations. Dean Moffatt, a pastor in Riverside County, was fined $1,000 after holding Palm Sunday services, The Sacramento Bee reports.
Dhillon Law Group filed a suit Monday in the US District Court Central in the District of California on behalf of Moffatt and the other pastors and congregant arguing that state officials deprived, “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,” according to a report by CNN.
The law firm argued in a written statement that the same social-distancing guidelines allowing people to go grocery shopping or buy alcohol should extend to attending church services, The Sacramento Bee reports.
Addressing Californians ahead of Easter Sunday, Gov. Newsom advised: “As you pray, move your feet at least six feet apart from someone else,” he said. “Practice your faith, but do so in a way that allows you to keep yourself healthy, keep others healthy.”
The churches argue that they should be allowed to meet and observe social distancing orders in the same way as essential businesses that have been allowed to remain open:
“The state does not get to dictate the method of worship to the faithful,” said Harmeet K. Dhillon, chief executive of the Center for American Liberty, a California nonprofit organization that filed the suit. The lawsuit argues that the orders are unconstitutionally broad.
“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 in a statement.
Chapman University law professor, John C. Eastman, believes the suit has merit:
“Obviously, stopping a pandemic is a compelling government interest” but the issue is whether the orders are narrowly tailored enough to meet the strict scrutiny required of laws dealing with religion, Eastman said in an email.
“Services with only a single family in a pew, and spaced three pews apart, with everyone wearing masks and gloves, would accomplish the government’s purpose in a much less draconian way,” he said.
Meanwhile, a Virginia pastor who said God was “larger than the virus,” has died from coronavirus:
An evangelical pastor died of COVID-19 just weeks after proudly showing off how packed his Virginia church was — and vowing to keep preaching “unless I’m in jail or the hospital.”
In his last known in-person service on March 22, Bishop Gerald O. Glenn got his congregation at Richmond’s New Deliverance Evangelistic Church to stand to prove how many were there despite warnings against gatherings of more than 10 people.
“I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus. You can quote me on that,” he said, repeating it a second time to claps, saying that “people are healed” in his church.
Bishop Glenn also believed that he was essential:
Happily announcing he was being “controversial” by being “in violation” of safety protocols — with “way more than 10 people” at the church — he vowed to keep his church open “unless I’m in jail or the hospital.”
“I am essential,” he said of remaining open, adding, “I’m a preacher — I talk to God!”
Sadly, his wife now has coronavirus.