Pastors Sue California Governor For Coronavirus Restrictions 'Criminalizing the Free Exercise of Religion'

A group of pastors, along with the Center for American Liberty, have filed a lawsuit against California Governor Gavin Newsom and other local officials, arguing that the state's "stay-at-home" order to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic violates the U.S. Constitution by "criminalizing the free exercise of religion."

Newsom, a Democrat, issued the "stay-at-home" order on March 19. The order banned public events and gatherings, as was the case in many other states who followed suit with their own "stay-at-home" or "shelter-in-place" orders. Some states allowed exemptions for religious services, citing constitutional separations of church and state, but Newsom's order did not.

"Criminalizing individual participation at a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other house of worship clearly violates the First Amendment," Harmeet Dhillon, chief executive officer for the conservative Center for American Liberty and a Republican Party official, said in a press release.

"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," he said. "The state does not get to dictate the method of worship to the faithful."

Gavin Newsom
California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks in front of the hospital ship USNS Mercy that arrived into the Port of Los Angeles on Friday, March 27 to provide relief for Southland hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic Carolyn Cole-Pool/Getty

Dhillon, an attorney who leads the Dhillon Law Group, argued that "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."

Newsweek has reached out to a spokesperson for Newsom for comment. On Friday, Newsom said during a press conference that he was not opposed to people practicing their faith as long as they did so by taking social distancing precautions.

"Practice your faith, but do so in a way that allows you to keep yourself healthy," he said.

Dean Moffatt, a Riverside County pastor and one of the lawsuit plaintiffs, was reportedly fined $1,000 after he held a Palm Sunday church service. Two of the other plaintiffs are pastors in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, while another is a churchgoer from San Bernardino. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California and also targets California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, as well as local officials in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Other pastors in California have also pushed back against the stay-at-home order, despite serious public health concerns. Pastor Jon Duncan of the Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi, California attempted to push forward with services on Palm Sunday, but was locked out by his landlord.

"We were advised that the building has been closed down to us, that the locks have been changed," Duncan told worshippers on April 5, Sacramento-based NBC affiliate KCRA 3 reported.

The Bethel Open Bible Church, the Lodi church's landlord, had changed the locks after a warning order from San Joaquin County Public Health Officer Maggie Park that explained holding services would be a misdemeanor offense, punishable by fine or imprisonment.

At the time, Lodi Police Lt. Michael Manetti told The Los Angeles Times that local official's understood "people's desire to practice their faith...but at church, generally people are closer to one another...shaking hands and singing."

The new lawsuit against Newsom came as the governor announced that social distancing restrictions in California will soon be relaxed. On Tuesday, Newsom will reveal plans to begin gradually easing regulations keeping state residents at home.

As of early Tuesday morning, California had more than 24,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, according to a tracker updated by Johns Hopkins University. The state has already seen 732 deaths due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel virus.