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Court Upholds California Ban On Church Services In Pandemic

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Chris Jepsen
/
Historic Episcopal Church at El Toro

California Gov. Gavin Newsom had the right to ban church assemblies in the interest of public health, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

Newsom's stay-at-home order did not violate the constitutional rights to free assembly and religion when the Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi was ordered to cease holding services, Judge John Mendez in Sacramento said.

Pastor Jonathan Duncan had continued to assemble after the governor banned public gatherings in March. Police entered the church during a service in late March attended by about 30 people and said they were defying the governor's order.

The church sent the city a “cease and desist” letter and argued they had a First Amendment right to gather and practice their religion.

“Constitutional rights cannot be suspended by a virus,” the church’s attorney, Dean Broyles, said.

Police posted a notice on the building that it’s nonessential use was a public nuisance.

Duncan planned to hold Palm Sunday services on April 5 when congregants arrived to find the church locked. The church's landlord, Bethel Open Bible Church, under the threat of a misdemeanor from San Joaquin County health officials, had changed the locks.

The judge said state and local stay-at-home orders were a valid exercise of emergency police powers and probably didn't violate the church's constitutional rights. Mendez noted that the Supreme Court over 100 years ago upheld the government's right to exercise police powers to promote public safety during a public health crisis.

“During public health crises, new considerations come to bear, and government officials must ask whether even fundamental rights must give way to a deeper need to control the spread of infectious disease and protect the lives of society’s most vulnerable,” Mendez wrote.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. Most people recover.