ABOVE: Attorney Paul Jonna with the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund and the Thomas More Society who represents the church appeared on Tuesday afternoon edition of CBN's Newswatch to talk about the case. Newswatch is seen weekdays on the CBN News Channel. For a programming schedule, click here.
California’s governor is finally willing to let houses of worship begin actual in-person worship again, but with too many restrictions for many people of faith in the state.
On Memorial Day, Governor Gavin Newsom announced guidelines for such worship services two days after one church in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista asked the U.S. Supreme Court to end Newsom’s ban on those in-person church, synagogue and mosque gatherings.
But the South Bay Pentecostal Church’s attorneys are still trying to get the high court to intervene, but now over the restrictions California’s new guidelines impose only on houses of worship.
For one thing, these guidelines state places of worship must “limit attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower.”
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To some, that limit is way too restrictive in a state that's home to many mega-churches with congregations numbering in the thousands, even tens of thousands. And they chafe that it's a limit only on religious gatherings.
“This cap on church attendees that is not enforced against any other human activities or gatherings in San Diego or throughout California is odious and abhorrent, devoid of the slightest justification as applied only to religious practice,” said Tom Brejcha, chief counsel for the Thomas More Society and one of the church’s attorneys.
He added, “This bias against people of faith betrays the falsity of proclamations that ‘churches are now open,’ as government officials seem to deem religious congregants and their shepherds alone as unworthy of trust, while opening up manufacturing and retail stores without any comparable caps on attendance. Intervention by the United States Supreme Court to weigh in on this critical matter is vitally needed, now more than ever, if the First Amendment retains any vitality.”
It's Like 'What Drove Our Founders to Flee Europe'
California’s attorney general Xavier Becerra is suggesting the church in Chula Vista is no longer being harmed because the state is now open again for worship services. And Newsom claims the church’s claims brought to the Supreme Court are now moot.
But South Bay United Pentecostal Church’s attorneys point out these officials are ignoring that they’ve slapped an arbitrary cap of 100 people exclusively on religious gatherings.
“The eleventh hour attempts by California to evade the critical issue of anti-religious discrimination fails to mitigate, much less cure, the damage incurred,” Brejcha stated. “Governor Newsom and his Attorney General Becerra need tutelage in Constitutional Law 101. Religious liberty is our First Liberty, embodied in our foundational charter.”
He concluded, “No authority can justify the extraordinary claim that this or any other emergency affords him or her the power to single out religious belief and practice for separate, unequal treatment so long as the leader claims to be acting in ‘good faith.’ Fleeing just such dictatorial decrees is what drove our Founders to flee Europe and establish our free country!”
‘Many Millions of Americans Embrace Worship as an Essential Part of Life’
Before Newsom's Memorial Day release of the guidelines allowing services, more than 1,200 religious leaders in California had declared they’ll take this matter into their own hands and hold services on Pentecost Sunday, May 31st no matter what their state ruled permissible.
These leaders signed a “declaration of essentiality” insisting their religious services are essential. They also ensured that they will practice safety measures at those services such as social distancing.
Friday, May 22nd, President Trump declared houses of worship are “essential” and demanded governors let worshippers return to in-person services “right now," as Trump put it.
He also stated, “The people are demanding to go to church and synagogue, go to their mosque. Millions of Americans embrace worship as an essential part of life.”
Pressure was on Governor Newsom not only from those more than 1,200 California religious leaders and President Trump but the U.S. Justice Department. The head of its Civil Rights Division sent a letter to Newsom two weeks ago warning him he’s discriminating against houses of worship.
In that letter, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband declared, “Religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans. This is true now more than ever.”
Newsom Speaks of Influence of Faith on His Own Life
A couple of days later, Newsom had some positive words for people of faith at a briefing about California’s fight against the coronavirus.
“It’s so important that folks understand that we deeply respect and admire the faith, devotion, and the cause that unites millions and millions of Californians – people of faith and community,” Newsom said.
He added, “At a time of so much anxiety and uncertainty, faith and that devotion to something higher, bigger and better than yourself becomes more pronounced and even more profound and more important.”
He spoke of his own Catholic family and schooling, and said: “I often reflect on how impactful the Jesuits were in terms of my upbringing.”
Justifying the Ban
Before Newsom on Memorial Day announced church services could begin again, South Bay United Pentecostal Church had lost in its bids to end the ban on such services.
On Friday, May 22nd, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the ban in a two-to-one decision. The 9th Circuit is often considered the most liberal of the circuit courts of appeals and is also the most overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Could Convert the ‘Bill of Rights into a Suicide Pact’
The two judges ruling against the Chula Vista church declared in their three-page decision, “We’re dealing with a highly contagious and often fatal disease for which there presently is no known cure. In the words of Justice Robert Jackson, if a ‘court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.’”
But Judge Daniel Collins said in a fiery 15-page dissent, “Warehousing and manufacturing facilities are categorically permitted to open, so long as they follow specified guidelines. But in-person ‘religious services’ – merely because they are ‘religious services’ – are categorically not permitted to take place even if they follow the same guidelines.”
Before Newsom released the new guidelines allowing religious services, California suggested there is too much risk that congregants wouldn’t follow safety rules.
State 'Cannot Assume the Worst when people go to Worship but Assume the Best when people go to Work'
In his dissent, Collins said, “…the State’s position on this score illogically assumes that the very same people who cannot be trusted to follow the rules at their place of worship can be trusted to do so at their workplace: the State cannot assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work or go about the rest of their daily lives in permitted social settings.”