California Church's Battle With Gov. Gavin Newsom Over Reopening Could Head to Supreme Court

A California church and its bishop filed an emergency appeal Sunday with the Supreme Court in an attempt to force California Governor Gavin Newsom to allow churches to reopen amid the pandemic.

South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Bishop Arthur Hodges lost to an appeals court last week over their lawsuit against the Democratic state leader and his ban of in-person religious services, prompting the emergency request for the country's top court to weigh in. A current shelter-in-place order prohibits churches from congregating.

As regions of the country are swiftly rolling back their social distancing measures to reopen businesses, President Donald Trump has sought to speed up the process by declaring churches "essential" and threatening to "override the governors" who refuse to immediately reopen them. The president does not have the constitutional authority to do so, and the White House has not provided the legal basis for such an argument.

However, in their request for the Supreme Court to hear the case by next Sunday, attorneys for the Southern California church and its bishop cited in their filing Trump's threat and a warning from the Justice Department telling Newsom that his restrictions were discriminatory against religion. The justices' guidance is "needed to avert a constitutional crisis," the lawyers contended, because "thousands of churches across the country and in California plan to reopen by May 31...in defiance of any state executive orders, leading to widespread civil unrest."

battle churches could reach Supreme Court
Demonstrators protest California Gov. Gavin Newsom's continued statewide shelter in place order outside of San Francisco City Hall on May 1 in San Francisco, California. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty

The appeal to the nation's most powerful justices further escalates the debate at the crossroads of public health and religious freedom. Trump argued Friday that America needs "more prayer, not less" just before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled against South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Hodges.

Amid the intense public pressure, Newsom tweeted Monday that counties can reopen houses of worship for some in-person services. However, there are strict constraints that will come with the religious institutions' gradual reopenings authorized under new guidelines Newsom unveiled.

With the thumbs up for county public health officials, churches in the Golden State may resume operations with 25 percent capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer. These provisions would last for three weeks as state officials monitor for any potential spike in coronavirus cases linked to the religious gatherings.

The guidelines place the power of allowing churches to return to in-person sessions in the hands of local leaders, potentially leading to county-by-county policies that could vary widely. It remains unclear whether the Supreme Court will weigh in on the complex matter in an emergency fashion, as has been requested.

Two of the three appeals court judges who sided with Newsom's shelter-in-place order noted in their ruling Friday that the virus produces a "highly contagious and often fatal disease."

"In the words of Justice Robert Jackson, if a '[c]ourt does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact,'" the judges wrote.

Newsom's office did not respond to Newsweek's request for comment.

An attorney for Hodges and the church, Charles LiMandri, told Newsweek Monday afternoon that he planned to file a supplemental letter brief with the Supreme Court Tuesday morning outlining several points. Among the arguments LiMandri will make will be his stated position that he still considers the new guidelines "both arbitrary and unconstitutional" because it limits Hodges' church to 100 congregants and is "still interfering with their right to free exercise of religion." The church can hold 600 people, LiMandri said.

Newsom's policy is also unfair, LiMandri added, because it is applied to religious institutions but not other facilities or businesses.

"Our client has always said that he is willing to limit church attendance to one-third to one-half capacity, which is 200 to 300 people, which will still allow for mote than six feet between families," LiMandri said. "This is further unconstitutional because the State is not placing similar onerous restrictions on secular facilities, such as office work spaces (no capacity limits), manufacturing (no capacity limits), and shopping centers (50% maximum capacity limit)."

LiMandri will further contend in his filing that the Supreme Court needs to rule because there is a split among circuit courts on when it comes to statewide directives shuttering churches.

"Otherwise, various government officials can keep setting arbitrary and unconstitutional restrictions," he said, citing Illinois limiting churches to just 10 congregants and Chicago using law enforcement to enforce such restrictions.

This story was updated to include additional comments and information from Attorney Charles LiMandre and to indicate that Newsom announced that in-person services may resume.