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California churches sue Governor Newsom over coronavirus restrictions, say religious services are 'essential'

"If a Californian is able to go to Costco or the local marijuana shop or liquor store... in a responsible, socially distanced manner, then he or she must be allowed to practice their faith using the same precautions"
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

California Governor Gavin Newsom is reportedly being sued by at least three churches in the region who want to continue inviting parishioners amid the coronavirus crisis in the country. The suit, which also names Attorney General Xavier Becerra and officials of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, was filed in the federal court for the Central District of California on Monday, April 13. 

The state of California is currently under strict one-month lockdown in an attempt to curb the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus in the region. California currently has more than 22,000 cases of COVID-19, with over 600 lives claimed by the virus. All non-essential businesses are closed in the region, and public gatherings, including at churches, have been temporarily banned.

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, 2020, to provide relief for Southland hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic. (Getty Images)

The lawsuit filed against the governor mentions three churches in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, who have argued that they can practice safe social distancing in a similar way grocery stores and other essential services are operating. The suit has also claimed that religious services are "essential for the spiritual health of the congregation so that the congregants can exhort one another during these difficult times," according to TMZ reports.

The suit, naming one of the plaintiffs, senior pastor at Church Unlimited James Moffatt, has claimed that he was fined $1,000 for holding a Palm Sunday service for violating Riverside County's order. The document stated that Moffatt "believes that scripture commands him as a pastor to lay hands on people and pray for them, this includes the sick." The pastor believes he is "required by scripture to baptize individuals, something that cannot be done at an online service," the suit added.

The head pastor and a parishioner of Shield of Faith Family Church in Fontana were also named in the suit along with the senior pastor of Word of Life Ministries International in Riverside. 

Aerial view as Pastor Greg Locke of Global Vision Bible Church holds services in the church parking lot on March 29, 2020 in Mount Juliet, Tennessee. Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order that prohibits social gatherings of 10 or more in response to coronavirus (COVID-19). (Getty Images)

The chief executive of the Center for American Liberty, Harmeet K. Dhillon, who filed the suit, said: "The state does not get to dictate the method of worship to the faithful. 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."

A professor of law and community service at Chapman University in Orange, John C. Eastman, said he believed that the lawsuit had merit. The professor, in a statement to the Daily Mail, said: "Services with only a single family in a pew, and spaced three pews apart, with everyone wearing masks and gloves, would accomplish the government's purpose in a much less draconian way."

Although some churches are resisting the lockdown, there are several others in California who have begun streaming services online. Multiple churches, on Easter Sunday, April 12, held drive-in services for people to listen from their car radios. A federal judge, however, on Friday, refused to allow a small church in Campo, Abiding Place Ministries, to gather for Easter Sunday services. The church has reportedly filed a lawsuit against San Diego County for banning public and private gatherings on public health grounds.