LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lawyers for a church with more than 160 congregations across California said they would seek an immediate court order Thursday allowing indoor worship after the Supreme Court told a lower federal court to reexamine state coronavirus restrictions on church services.
The apparent victory for Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry follows a recent high court ruling in favor of churches and synagogues in New York.
Attorney Mathew Staver, who represents the church, said he expected a swift order from a Los Angeles federal judge blocking Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order to close most indoor worship in most counties. He said the high court's actions would also lead other churches to challenge COVID-19 health orders.
“The bottom line result is that where the court needs to go is inevitable,” Staver said. “What the court did last week and what they did today, it’s a whole new landscape and I think they’ve telegraphed quite clearly the direction they're going.”
Last week, the Supreme Court split 5-4 in holding that New York could not enforce certain limits on attendance at churches and synagogues.
Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said court challenges by churches have had more success as the pandemic has worn on because they've been able to show they are subject to rules unequal to those faced by some nonessential businesses.
The Supreme Court order came the day after restaurants gained some traction in their challenge to a Los Angeles County ban on outdoor dining. A Superior Court judge ordered the county to return to court Tuesday to show evidence that banning outside dining prevents spread of the virus.
The judge denied a request for a temporary restraining order but could issue one if he sides with restaurants that the order was arbitrary and capricious. Los Angeles officials claim that eating without a mask raises the threat of transmission of the virus, which is out of control now.
Taken together, the church and restaurant cases represent rare gains in legal challenges of COVID-19 regulations that have typically withstood legal fights. With few exceptions, California judges have sided with the government for various imposing restrictions.
In one case, a judge in Sutter County in Northern California ordered Newsom to stop issuing directives related to the coronavirus that might interfere with state law. But an appeals court has put that order on hold while the case is pending.
Last month, a San Diego judge rejected a case from restaurants and gyms that sought to restore indoor service that were forced to move operations outside to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The question is what impact a looming stay-home order expected from the governor in coming days to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed will have on the cases.
Attorney Dennis Ellis, who represents the California Restaurant Association, said if Newsom's order takes effect it wouldn't make their legal case irrelevant. A court win by restaurants would allow them to serve food outside when the order is eventually lifted, Ellis said.
Newsom's order, which would go into effect after a region had more than 85% of its intensive care unit beds occupied, would halt outdoor dining and limit churches to outdoor services for at least three weeks. But it would allow stores to remain open with a 20% capacity limit.
Volokh said that difference could open the door to further legal challenges from churches to claim they were subject to unequal treatment that violates their First Amendment rights.
In previous months, courts across California have upheld limits on worship services, though some churches have defied orders to close.
In San Diego County, a standoff has intensified between county officials and Awaken Church, which operates five houses of worship in the San Diego area and has openly defied California restrictions.
On Saturday, the county issued an advisory that identified an Awaken campus in San Diego as the source of an outbreak, taking the extremely rare step of publicly naming the church. It said anyone who attended indoor services and events there the week of Nov. 15 should quarantine for two weeks.
On Wednesday, it added two other Awaken campuses, in the suburbs of San Marcos and Chula Vista, to its advisory, reporting 64 cases at all three locations.
Awaken has repeatedly defied orders, also being the first entity to receive a cease-and-desist order from the county in July. That notice said authorities viewed a news station’s report of an indoor service and that failing to comply with state orders could result in misdemeanor prosecution and a $1,000 fine.
In the last three weeks, the county has issued 103 such cease-and-desist orders as part of a stepped-up enforcement effort that includes eight sheriff's deputies. Most of those targets are restaurants and gyms but there were five churches, including three Awaken campuses.
Awaken said Nov. 17 that it “will continue to provide the safest in-person & online services.” Church officials did not immediately reply to requests for additional comment Thursday.
Associated Press reporter Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed.