CA Church Case Before SCOTUS

Nov 30, 2020

California Governor Gavin Newsom must respond by 5:00 p.m. ET today to an emergency petition filed by Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry. 

Justice Elana Kagan issued the order to Gov. Newsom in response to the churches’ request to the U.S. Supreme Court for an injunction pending appeal in their federal lawsuit against the governor’s unconstitutional worship ban and discriminatory treatment. The discrimination has become more obvious and severe in Gov. Newsom’s new “Blueprint” issued on August 28, 2020, which established a system of four Tiers. The “Blueprint” discriminates against religious meetings in churches and places of worship in every Tier. The chart attached to the petition makes this discrimination very clear. 

Harvest Rock Church has multiple campuses in California, including in Pasadena, Los Angeles, Irvine and Corona. Harvest International Ministries has 162 member churches throughout the state. Harvest Rock Church has received letters from the Pasadena Code Enforcement and City Prosecutor threatening up to one year in prison, daily criminal charges and $1,000 fines against the pastors, church governing board, staff, and parishioners, which includes a threat to close the church. 

Last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision did not grant an injunction pending appeal. However, the Court of Appeals will hear the merits of the request for an injunction in a future hearing to be set in the new year. Due to the impending criminal threats and fines, these California churches are requesting the Supreme Court to intervene while the case remains pending at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a 5-4 opinion just before midnight Wednesday evening, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “very severe” limitations on church attendance in the state’s COVID red and orange zones violate the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion and are not the least restrictive means of preventing infections. The High Court granted the emergency petition for an injunction pending appeal on behalf of New York City synagogues and Roman Catholic churches in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo and Agudath Israel v. Cuomo

In October, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed Executive Order 202.68, which presented updated regulations for various public facilities, including fitness centers, hair salons, restaurants, taverns and houses of worship. Churches in orange zones were required to be “subject to a maximum capacity limit of the lesser of 33 percent of maximum occupancy or 25 people, whichever is fewer.” Those in red zones were “subject to a capacity limit of 25 percent of maximum occupancy or 10 people, whichever is fewer.” 

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett ruled for the churches and synagogues. The order applies pending the appeal below and a petition for cert, if filed. 

The High Court stated, “Not only is there no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID–19, but there are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services...Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. Before allowing this to occur, we have a duty to conduct a serious examination of the need for such a drastic measure.” 

Justice Gorsuch added his additional concurring opinion. He wrote, “It is time—past time—to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques.” 

In Justice Kavanaugh’s concurrence he also wrote. “The New York restrictions on houses of worship are not tailored to the circumstances given the First Amendment interests at stake. To reiterate, New York’s restrictions on houses of worship are much more severe than the California and Nevada restrictions at issue in South Bay and Calvary, and much more severe than the restrictions that most other States are imposing,” wrote Justice Kavanaugh. 

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “Governor Gavin Newsom has run out of arguments following the Supreme Court’s ruling. I have always said it is just a matter of time when these discriminatory orders imposed on places of worship are struck down nationwide. That time is inching closer each day. The virus does not discriminate between nonreligious and religious meetings, but Gov. Newsom does. This discrimination violates the First Amendment as the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged in its recent ruling on behalf of New York churches.” 

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