CA Church Appeals Preliminary Ruling Regarding Worship Ban

Aug 12, 2020

RIVERSIDE, CA -- Liberty Counsel appeared in federal district court today regarding Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry’s request for a preliminary injunction against Governor Gavin Newsom’s unconstitutional COVID-19 orders. The governor’s orders prohibit all indoor worship services, including home Bible studies and fellowship, while encouraging mass gatherings of protestors throughout the state. 

Harvest Rock Church has several campuses and Harvest International Ministry includes 162 churches in California and 65,000 affiliate churches and ministries worldwide. Che’ Ahn is the senior pastor of Harvest Rock Church and the founder of Harvest International Ministry. 

Following the oral argument, Judge Jesus G. Bernal denied the request for a preliminary injunction. Liberty Counsel immediately filed an appeal. Liberty Counsel will also file with the same judge a request for an injunction pending appeal, which the court will also deny. But that procedure is required to make a similar request before the Court of Appeals.

On April 23, Judge Bernal also denied a temporary restraining order request by different churches. However, since that opinion, much has changed in California, including: 

  • Gov. Newsom issued new “Essential” orders with 173 exceptions, but no exception for places of worship on April 28;
  • No singing and chanting ban began on July 1;
  • Places of worship with micromanagement directives were issued on July 1;
  • No worship ban (including private homes) began on July 13;
  • Gov. Newsom encourages tens of thousands (100,000 in Los Angeles area) of protestors with no social distancing and many without masks, all being encouraged by the governor, saying “Keep doing it!;”
  • Although having been part of the orders from the beginning, the first focused argument pointing out that Gov. Newsom’s orders allow non-religious activities in the same church building with the same people and no numerical limit to feed, shelter, and provide social services which includes non-religious counseling, but bans all religious worship activities. 

Although the court denied the preliminary injunction, the matter involving the injunction will proceed on appeal and the full merits of the case will also proceed at the district court level. The case is far from over. 

This week, Harvest Rock Church received a letter from the City of Pasadena’s code compliance officer demanding that in-person worship services must cease. The letter states that the city of Pasadena will continue to enforce the governor’s orders “until the present emergency ends.” The letter threatens criminal action and fines for non-compliance. 

The lawsuit challenges both the total ban on in-person worship (including in private homes) in the counties on the “County Monitoring List,” and the ban on singing and chanting in the remaining counties. In addition to in-person worship at Harvest Rock Church, the church also has many “Life Groups,” which are home Bible studies and fellowship groups. These too are now prohibited under Gov. Newsom’s recent orders. Yet while he discriminates against churches and houses of worship, including home Bible study and fellowship meetings, Gov. Newsom continues to encourage thousands of protestors to gather throughout the state.

Photo Credit: Capital Gazette

In Governor Newsom’s response to the motion for the temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, he argues that churches are not “essential.” Regarding feeding, counseling and housing people in the same building where worship services occur, Newsom argues that only the worship services should be prohibited while the other non-religious services should be allowed. 

Concerning home Bible studies, Newsom argues that he has authority to prohibit home fellowship groups. As to protests, Newsom admits he does encourage them and supports their violation of his orders, but he encourages protestors to wear masks and practice social distancing. 

The Supreme Court clearly ruled many years ago that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment means that the state nor federal government can neither “force nor influence a person go to or remain away from church against his will.” Everson v. Bd. of Educ. of Ewing Twp., 330 U.S. 1, 15 (1947) (emphasis added). 

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “This history of Governor Gavin Newsom’s orders with its myriad of exceptions and his obvious preferential treatment of protests make clear the restrictions on religious worship are unconstitutional. Gov. Newsom doesn’t even try to defend his orders allowing non-religious activities in churches while banning religious worship. There is no pandemic pause button in the Constitution that applies only to religious activities and places of worship.” 

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