California Church Sues Over Governor's Reopening Plan

California has been under a strict stay-at-home order during the COVID-19 pandemic, as one of the first U.S. states to see a spike in virus cases.

State Capitol of California in Sacramento.
State Capitol of California in Sacramento. (photo: Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A protestant church in California is suing the state for ordering churches to remain closed while some businesses can reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California filed the lawsuit on May 11 through the Thomas More Society, alleging that the state’s plan of allowing certain businesses—including shopping malls and restaurants—to reopen before churches is unconstitutional.

“We feel it is totally unacceptable. It’s relegating the churches to a second-class status,” attorney Charles LiMandri told CNA on Wednesday.

Churches, he said, “enjoy special status” under the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment, and “if anything” should be allowed to open before other organizations, provided that they follow public health guidelines for social distancing and hygiene.

California has been under a strict stay-at-home order during the COVID-19 pandemic, as one of the first U.S. states to see a spike in virus cases.

In late April, Governor Gavin Newsom released a four-stage “Resilience Roadmap” plan to reopen the state; the plan is now in “Stage 2,” where “lower-risk businesses” are allowed to begin reopening. Retail stores can offer curbside pickup and manufacturing businesses can reopen, and by the end of the month shopping malls and restaurants are expected to be having customers. Liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries have been allowed to keep doing business in the state during the shutdown.

However, churches remain closed and are not allowed to reopen until Stage 3 of Newsom’s plan, “potentially months away,” LiMandri said.

In that stage, churches are grouped together with “higher-risk” businesses such as movie theaters, nail salons and tattoo parlors where customers will either crowd a closed space or will be in close proximity to staff.

“I don’t know how they can justify it, because eating in a restaurant is not a constitutional right. Going to church is a constitutional right,” LiMandri said.

The church says it has a “large sanctuary” for spacing congregants apart from each other, and is equipped with masks, gloves, and protective gear. It already runs an outdoor food distribution operation with staff wearing masks and gloves, LiMandri noted.

“Religious expression is not a hobby,” he said, distinguishing religious services from “non-essential” recreational activities. “For the faith communities, it is very much an essential activity.”

On May 5, a federal judge in Sacramento ruled that the state had the authority to restrict religious services as part of its emergency police power.

There is an effort underway by some Christian churches to reopen by the end of the month in spite of the governor’s order, LiMandri said. 

“If 1,000 or more Evangelical pastors start services, what’s the governor going to do—arrest them all?” LiMandri asked.

So far, the Catholic dioceses in the state have closed voluntarily to help reduce the spread of the disease, and to “cooperate and avoid confrontation.”

A spokesman for the California state Catholic Conference told CNA on May 14 that “no dioceses in the state is part of the lawsuit.”  

“Public officials have broad powers when it comes to public health emergencies so we are consulting closely with local authorities as we devise the safest way of re-opening Masses to the faithful in each diocese,” Steve Pehanich told CNA.

“The dioceses are working with all possible speed. They long to return to the sacraments and to fellowship but want to do so in the safest way possible under the circumstances.”

The governor’s plan gives counties the flexibility, during Stage 2, “to relax stricter local orders at their own pace.” After Stage 2, “once a statewide COVID-19 surveillance system is made possible through testing, further regional variations could be supported,” the plan says.

Pehanich told CNA that “some counties are progressing through the phases faster than others,” but that “firm timelines are difficult because of the variations in deaths, infection rates, ICU capacity and many other factors.” 

“Some rural counties have had very few cases while urban counties have many more. Dioceses are working to match local conditions,” he said.