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Three southern California churches who want to remain open amid the coronavirus pandemic filed a lawsuit against Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials on Monday, arguing that stay-at-home orders violate their First Amendment right to freedom of religion and assembly.

The Center for American Liberty, a conservative non-profit, filed the lawsuit in the federal court for the Central District of California on behalf of three pastors and one parishioner in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, east of Los Angeles. Attorney General Xavier Becerra and officials of San Bernardino and Riverside counties are also named as defendants.

Newsom, a Democrat, and others are accused of "criminalizing church attendance" under overly broad state and local stay-at-home orders instead of allowing houses of worship to remain open if they practice safe social distancing in the same manner as grocery stores and other outlets considered essential services.


“The state and localities have granted sweeping exceptions to the shutdown orders for favored businesses and professions, while specifically targeting people of faith and decreeing to religious institutions that it is ‘good enough’ that they be allowed to offer streaming video services,” said Harmeet K. Dhillon, chief executive of the Center for American Liberty, according to the Hill.

“The state does not get to dictate the method of worship to the faithful,” her statement continued. “If a Californian is able to go to Costco or the local marijuana shop or liquor store and buy goods in a responsible, socially distanced manner, then he or she must be allowed to practice their faith using the same precautions.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaking at a news briefing at the Governor's Office of Emergency Services in Rancho Cordova, Calif. earlier this month.  (AP)

The center was founded in 2019 by Dhillon, who is on the Republican National Committee that helps steer the party’s platform and election strategy.

One plaintiff, James Moffatt, senior pastor at Church Unlimited in Indio, was fined $1,000 for violating Riverside County’s order by holding a Palm Sunday service, according to the lawsuit.

He “believes that Scripture commands him as a pastor to lay hands on people and pray for them, this includes the sick,” the suit said. “Moffatt also believes that he is required by Scripture to baptize individuals, something that cannot be done at an online service.”

Also named are a parishioner and the head pastor of Shield of Faith Family Church in Fontana and the senior pastor of Word of Life Ministries International in Riverside, which usually has 20 to 30 regular attendees, according to the suit.


Only a select few churches in California have refused to stop holding in-person services. The largest Roman Catholic dioceses have begun streaming services online.

On Easter Sunday, several churches held drive-in services for congregants who listened on their car radios from parking lots. The suit claims smaller houses of worship may not have the technology to stream services online.

Following measures already set in place by some county officials, Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 19, closing all non-essential businesses, banning gatherings and urging residents to only leave home for necessary trips. California recorded 27,098 confirmed cases, with at least 890 deaths by Thursday morning, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Last week, a federal judge refused to allow a small church in Campo, Abiding Place Ministries, to gather for Easter Sunday services, rejecting a request for a temporary restraining order sought by the church, which has sued San Diego County for banning public or private gatherings on public health grounds.

Citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, U.S. District Judge Cynthia A. Bashant said the right to freedom of religion doesn’t include the right to expose the community to communicable disease.

Elsewhere, states and local governments have differed on whether houses of worship must meet social distancing rules. Some states have provided a degree of exemption for religious activity.

In Kansas, a coronavirus outbreak led to a fight by Gov. Laura Kelly to limit religious and funeral services to no more than 10 people in advance of Easter. After a legislative council overturned her executive order, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld it Saturday.


Rodney Howard-Browne, a Florida-based Christian pastor who prayed over Trump in the Oval Office in 2017, had vowed to not stop services and encouraged worshipers to shake hands despite experts identifying that behavior as an easy way to spread the virus. But he has since stopped in-person worship services while vowing to reopen the church at an unspecified date.

In Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell was warned by police Tuesday after holding a service that attracted hundreds and flouted a state ban on mass gatherings. Spell, who has claimed that his services also heal cancer and HIV, said that he would not permit “any dictator law” to stop worship.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.