This week, a California District Court approved the settlement of Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry's lawsuit against Gov. Gavin Newsom, establishing the first state-wide permanent injunction in the country against COVID restrictions on churches and places of worship.
The Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit religious rights law firm, represented Harvest Rock in their legal proceedings against the governor and the state.
Under the settlement agreement, discriminatory restrictions on worship and religious gatherings may no longer be applied to churches and places of worship.
First Governor to Have Court Ordered Permanent Injunction
The governor must also pay Liberty Counsel $1,350,000 to reimburse attorney's fees and costs. Newsom is the first governor in the U.S. to be reprimanded so severely on this issue, being ordered to obey a permanent injunction on behalf of houses of worship.
The settlement references several Supreme Court opinions, including Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom, that cite a long list of similar nonreligious activities the High Court set forth as comparable gatherings. While the state allowed activity at grocery stores, warehouses, big box stores, transportation, and more, Newsom had unconstitutionally shut down religious activities like church gatherings.
According to the permanent injunction, churches and places of worship may never again have discriminatory restrictions placed on them that are not equally applied to a long list of "critical infrastructure" or "essential services" as outlined in several Supreme Court precedents cited in the settlement.
"This is a momentous day for churches in America! After nearly a yearlong battle defending our religious freedoms, our lawsuit has reached a permanent settlement in our favor," Harvest Rock Senior Pastor Ché Ahn said.
"I am thrilled to see the complete reversal of the last discriminatory restrictions against churches in California, knowing this case will act as a precedent, not only in our state but also in our nation," he continued. "We are incredibly grateful to our attorney Mat Staver and to Liberty Counsel for their relentless support and fierce determination. Most of all, we give all the glory to God for moving mightily in this historic season!"
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver explained Gov. Newsom's COVID restrictions discriminated against churches while providing preferential treatment to many secular businesses and gatherings.
"The Supreme Court intervened multiple times to provide relief. California may never again place discriminatory restrictions on churches and places of worship," he said in a statement. "Gov. Gavin Newsom has now been permanently quarantined and may not violate the First Amendment rights of churches and places of worship again. We are grateful for Pastor Ché Ahn, Harvest Rock Church, and Harvest International Ministry. Pastor Ahn's leadership and courage has toppled the tyranny and freed every pastor and church in California."
Legal Battle Began Last Summer
Last July, Harvest Rock Church filed a federal lawsuit against Newsom over his severe COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on churches and even home Bible studies. The state placed limitations on the number of church members attending indoor worship services, which the Pasadena-based church argued was in violation of their First Amendment right to religious freedom.
As CBN News reported last February, Newsom's office issued revised guidelines for indoor church services after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the state's ban on indoor worship during the COVID-19 pandemic, but he left restrictions in place against singing and chanting.
California had put the ban in place arguing that the virus is more easily transmitted indoors and that singing releases tiny droplets that can carry the disease.
Ahn at the time told his congregation that the church would defy the ban on singing.
"Fifty percent of worship is singing. We're gonna sing no matter what," Ahn said at the beginning of the service Sunday. He thanked the Supreme Court and said his lawyers would continue to petition for the right to sing during indoor services. The church argued the state was unfairly restricting churches while allowing the entertainment industry to film TV singing competitions.
On April 9, the U.S. Supreme Court granted an emergency injunction pending appeal in Tandon v. Newsom and ruled that Gov. Newsom's restrictions on home Bible study and worship violate the First Amendment.
The Timeline for Actions Regarding California's Worship Restrictions, According to the Liberty Counsel:
March 19, 2020 – May 25, 2020: No Worship at all
May 26, 2020 – July 12, 2020: 25 percent capacity but no more than 100 people
July 13, 2020 – April 8, 2021: No worship for over 90 percent of California
April 9, 2021 – April 12, 2021: Restrictions on home Bible study lifted but not on singing and chanting
April 13, 2021 – May 9, 2021: Mandatory attendance limits are lifted
May 17, 2021 – and Forever: Discriminatory restrictions on churches permanently removed