Greg Fairrington, pastor of a Rocklin megachurch that’s been defying California’s pandemic restrictions on indoor churchgoing, opened Sunday’s service by pulling out his cell phone and reading aloud from a fresh U.S. Supreme Court decision.
“There is no world in which the Constitution tolerates a color-coded executive edict that opens liquor stores … and bike shops but shutters churches,” Fairrington said, quoting the opinion written by Justice Neil Gorsuch.
The pastor then looked out at his congregants at Destiny Church and shouted: “The Supreme Court of the United States of America — yeah! We have a biblical mandate and First Amendment rights!” What appeared to be a large crowd of worshippers, packed closely together, roared its approval.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order preventing indoor church services in much of California, a move aimed at halting the spread of COVID-19, may have hit a major legal obstacle. Last week, the Supreme Court struck down New York state’s rules that limited in-person attendance at houses of worship, declaring it was unconstitutional to severely restrict church and synagogue attendance while allowing merchants and other non-religious institutions to welcome big crowds.
The 5-4 ruling — with the swing vote cast by President Donald Trump’s newest appointee to the court, Amy Coney Barrett — could scramble the pandemic legal landscape as coronavirus infections surge in California and elsewhere. A Pasadena church last week petitioned the Supreme Court for an injunction that would block Newsom’s rules on church gatherings.
Separately, a federal judge in Sacramento, presiding over a lawsuit filed against Newsom by a Lodi church, ordered both sides Monday to submit additional legal arguments about the potential impact of the New York case.
The New York ruling shows “the Constitution is not suspended by the virus,” said Dean Broyles, the lawyer representing Cross Culture Christian Center, the Lodi church challenging Newsom’s directives. “You’re going to see more and more churches defying the (governor’s) order.”
New York’s rules limited church attendance to 10 or 25 congregants, depending on the size of the institution. In California, indoor services are completely forbidden in counties that have been placed in the purple category — the most restrictive of the tiers. With coronavirus infections at record levels, about 99% of the state’s population, including the greater Sacramento area, lives in purple counties.
Capital Christian Center, one of the Sacramento area’s largest churches, is looking at whether it can reopen for in-person attendance in light of the Supreme Court case.
“We are taking a fresh look,” the church’s chief operations officer Jason Batt said. “We’re reading the ruling in depth.” He added that Capital Christian believes it “can safely host in-person services” but is also consulting with state and local health officials.
Leslie Jacobs, a constitutional law expert at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, said the New York case doesn’t automatically toss aside California’s rules on church attendance. But it could make it harder for California to defend in court why it’s treating religious services differently “than hair salons and shopping malls,” she said.
Could Newsom’s pandemic winning streak end?
So far, Newsom has successfully fended off all lawsuits filed over his stay-at-home orders, securing court orders against churches, health clubs and other challengers.
He even won a case in the U.S. Supreme Court. In May, the court voted 5-4 to uphold rules that, at the time, allowed indoor services but limited attendance to 100 people or 25% capacity, whichever was smaller. The rules had been challenged by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, near San Diego.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who sided with Newsom, said the governor’s rules were allowable in part because churches weren’t being singled out for strict regulation.
“Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time,” Roberts wrote.
Since then, however, California’s rules on church gatherings have become considerably more restrictive — forbidding all indoor services in the purple counties.
What’s more, the Supreme Court’s makeup has changed. The deciding vote in the New York case was cast by Coney Barrett, who replaced the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg voted to uphold the California rules in the South Bay church case.
The court, with its more conservative outlook, has made clear it will “look very carefully at restrictions on religious exercise,” Jacobs said.
Paul Jonna, a lawyer for the South Bay church, said the New York decision opens the door to fresh legal challenges to Newsom’s restrictions — from his church and others.
“It’s a game-changer,” he said. “The restrictions in California are far worse than New York’s.”
The Newsom administration continues to defend its approach in court. In a filing Monday with the U.S. Supreme Court — seeking to thwart a lawsuit filed by Harvest Rock Church of Pasadena — Newsom’s lawyers cited “the many reports of indoor communal gatherings (including indoor worship services) becoming ‘super-spreader’ events.”
They added that indoor church services do pose a greater risk than, say, grocery shopping, where contact with other people is more fleeting.
‘Relying on the super-spreader myth’
Church gatherings have been a highly sensitive topic since the pandemic began. One of the first major outbreaks in the Sacramento area occurred when 71 members of Bethany Slavic Missionary Church, meeting on their own after the church halted indoor services, were infected with COVID-19.
In October, Bethel Church in Redding came under harsh criticism in the community after 300 students and staff at the church’s school tested positive. Church leaders went on social media and expressed disdain for public health protocols, although they later apologized.
On Monday, Bethel spokesman Aaron Tesauro said “we haven’t had a chance to discuss how the (court) decision may or may not affect things.”
Broyles, the lawyer for the Lodi church, said Newsom’s administration has been “relying on the super-spreader myth” in its crackdown on church attendance.
In April, Cross Culture was planning to hold Palm Sunday services in defiance of Newsom’s initial stay-at-home order but had to relent after its landlord padlocked the door under pressure from city officials. The church sued the governor three weeks later, and Broyles argues that church attendance shouldn’t pose a public health risk so long as congregants are careful.
“Once you start taking basic precautions … it mitigates or reduces virus spread down to practically zero,” Broyles said.
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