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California churches seek emergency reprieve from state’s pandemic restrictions

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A group of California churches is seeking a reprieve from state limits on indoor worship capacity and bans on singing and chanting in advance of the most important day on the Christian calendar.

Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministries filed Friday for an emergency injunction in its 10-month case now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals against California Gov. Gavin Newsom over what the churches describe as his discriminatory pandemic orders.

The Good Friday filing came with the Harvest-affiliated churches celebrating “another Holy Season of Palm Sunday and Easter while under the constant threat of criminal sanction for violating the Governor’s unconstitutional restrictions on their worship services.”

“Enough is enough,” said the motion. “How many sacred religious holidays and Holy Seasons must Appellants’ endure before this Court will finally shut down the unconstitutional, unconscionable, and unending government discrimination in California?”

The Supreme Court ruled Feb. 6 in favor of the Harvest churches and South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, declaring that the state must find the “least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest,” but the next hearing before the Ninth Circuit could come as late as September.

“The time has come for the Governor’s unconstitutional reign of executive discrimination against religious worship to meet its rightful place in the dustbin of constitutional history,” said the motion filed by the Liberty Counsel. “Appellants have suffered long enough.”

Under California’s four-tier Blueprint for a Safer Economy, most counties currently fall under the second-most-restrictive red tier, which means capacity at religious services is restricted to 25% and singing and chanting are banned.

Businesses and public accommodations exempted from the capacity restrictions include laundromats, bus and train stations, radio and television stations, banks, law firms, real-estate agencies, defense contractors and government operations, according to the Liberty Counsel.

“There’s no reason you can allow people to gather at a bus station and not a church,” said Daniel Schmid, Liberty senior litigation counsel.

Mr. Newsom’s office has argued that the restrictions are needed to protect residents against the novel coronavirus. The state lifted the ban on indoor worship after the high court ruling.

While winning the emergency injunction before Easter would be ideal, Mr. Schmid said “we want it soon.”

“We will not rest until all of California’s discriminatory schemes are removed and churches and pastors no longer face enormous fines and threats of jail,” said Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver. “Churches and places of worship have always been essential and are now more essential than ever.”

The Harvest network includes 160 churches in California, including Harvest Rock in Pasadena.

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