Pastors from three California churches are suing Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and several local officials for restricting religious gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic ― arguing that their congregations can worship in person and practice social distancing at the same time.
In a federal lawsuit filed in the Central District of California on Monday, the evangelical Christian plaintiffs insist it’s unconstitutional for the state to allow some businesses to stay open ― such as grocery stores, restaurants, and laundromats ― while houses of worship are forced to close, even if they agree to abide by the government’s guidelines for social distancing.
“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,” Harmeet Dhillon, former vice chairwoman of the California Republican Party and a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told The Associated Press.
The plaintiffs include the pastors of three churches, one in San Bernardino County and two in Riverside County. A woman who attends the San Bernardino church is also listed as a plaintiff.
The lawsuit claims Newsom’s stay-at-home order from March 19, and similar measures by Riverside and San Bernardino local officials, are a “gross abuse” of power that takes advantage of the pandemic to expand government authority “by unprecedented lengths.”
Newsom’s order deems as essential “faith-based services that are provided through streaming or other technology, but in-person services are not listed.
James Dean Moffatt, senior pastor of Church Unlimited in Indio, California, was fined $1,000 for violating Riverside’s order prohibiting social gatherings after holding an in-person service on April 5, Palm Sunday, the lawsuit states.
Moffatt had his church building cleaned and disinfected after hearing about the virus, according to the complaint. The pastor also made sanitizers available to everyone who entered, encouraged families to sit at least six feet apart, and told anyone who was sick or uncomfortable with coming to church to stay at home.
Moffatt believes it is important for Christians to “come together, remember, and celebrate all that Jesus has done for this world,” the lawsuit states. The pastor also believes the Bible commands him to baptize people and pray for the sick by laying his hands on them ― two acts that can’t be done online.
Days later, Riverside issued a clarification to its order stating that drive-up church services that practiced social distancing would be allowed just for Easter Sunday.
Brenda Wood, senior pastor of Riverside’s Word of Life Ministries International, held a drive-up church service at her church on Easter. Parishioners wore masks and each car was parked at least six feet from other vehicles, the complaint says. Church restrooms were off-limits during the service. Wood spoke through a portable sound amplification system, which meant congregants rolled down their windows to listen.
Communion was served by an individual wearing a mask and gloves, who handed out pre-packaged elements using tongs.
The pastor shared photos of the service on her Facebook page on Tuesday.
Wood wants to continue holding drive-up church services until the state of emergency has been lifted, the lawsuit states, citing a Bible verse from the book of Hebrews as the pastor’s inspiration. The verse encourages believers to not give up on “meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.”
“Wood believes she can implement proper social distancing measures similar to those practiced by restaurants, auto mechanics, and abortion clinics,” the lawsuit states.
Patrick Scales, lead pastor of Shield of Faith Family Church in San Bernardino, also wants to have church services while practicing social distancing guidelines. Scales said most of his congregants will stay at home, but he would like to be available for those who are healthy and believe they can safely attend in-person services. Families would stay six feet apart from other families and all worshippers would wear masks, the complaint says.
Scales “believes that religious services are essential for the spiritual
health of the congregation so that the congregants can exhort one another during these difficult times,” the lawsuit states.
The way California and these two counties have enforced their bans on religious gatherings has been inconsistent and “ad hoc,” the complaint alleges. Riverside, for example, made an exception to its order for Easter Sunday, but didn’t make exceptions for other Holy Week events or for the holidays of other faiths.
Neither Newsom’s office nor officials in Riverside and San Bernardino counties have responded to HuffPost requests for comments on the lawsuit.
Most churches in California have stopped holding in-person services, The Associated Press reported.
California’s legal tussle over the constitutionality of limiting religious gatherings emerges as similar debates take shape nationwide. States have approached the issue in a variety of ways ― some have explicitly prohibited religious groups from worshipping in-person while others have offered religious exemptions to statewide stay-at-home orders.
In California, more than 25,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have been confirmed, resulting in more than 760 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Nationwide, the death toll has topped 24,000.