California Governor Doesn’t “Get Religion” and Persists in Blatant Bias Against Churches

THOMAS MORE SOCIETY — The Southern California Pentecostal Church that asked the United States Supreme Court to intervene in the fight for their religious liberty is continuing its pursuit of relief from our nation’s highest court so it may hold services open to all of its congregants on this coming Pentecost Sunday­­. Governor Gavin Newsom claimed last Monday that he was “opening up the churches” in California – but he singled out houses of worship by imposing on religious worshippers alone a 25% capacity limit, with a cap of 100 people – a patently discriminatory, arbitrary restriction targeted exclusively at religious gatherings, despite the South Bay Pentecostal Church’s vast size, far more numerous congregants, and its entire litany of steps such as strict contagion-limiting protocols for social distancing, non-contact, and other precautionary measures, etc.

Thomas More Society, a national public interest law firm based in Chicago, Omaha, and Fairfield, NJ, retained LiMandri & Jonna, a law firm doing pro bono work as Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund in Rancho Santa Fe, CA (FCDF), to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and issue an emergency injunction against Gov. Newsom, enjoining him from enforcing his discriminatory ceiling on church attendance in time for religious services to be held on May 31st, Pentecost Sunday. The petition argues that the First Amendment’s guarantee that all Americans enjoy the fundamental right to freely exercise their religion protects churchgoers against being singled out to suffer biased, discriminatory restrictions not enforced against any other gatherings.

Tom Brejcha, President and Chief Counsel for the Thomas More Society, explained why Newsom’s as well as local officials’ restrictions cannot be overlooked. “This case is about essential and fundamental freedoms that are enshrined in our First Amendment, at the very summit of our Bill of Rights. This cap on church attendees that is not enforced against any other human activities or gatherings in San Diego or throughout California is odious and abhorrent, devoid of the slightest justification as applied only to religious practice. This bias against people of faith betrays the falsity of proclamations that ‘churches are now open,’ as government officials seem to deem religious congregants and their shepherds alone as unworthy of trust, while opening up manufacturing and retail stores without any comparable caps on attendance. Intervention by the United States Supreme Court to weigh in on this critical matter is vitally needed, now more than ever, if the First Amendment retains any vitality.”

South Bay United Pentecostal Church and its senior pastor, Bishop Arthur Hodges III, are suing Governor Gavin Newsom and other state and local officials for treating churches alone among “essential” operations as unworthy of the people’s trust. South Bay’s attorneys originally filed a request to be open for worship during the COVID-19 pandemic on May 11, 2020. Repulsed by a San Diego federal district judge, the case was fast tracked for a hearing before a 3-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which denied relief by a 2-1 vote on May 22, 2020, with a powerful dissent authored by recently appointed Judge Daniel Collins. Then LiMandri and the Thomas More Society, joined by San Francisco’s Harmeet Dhillon, promptly filed an Emergency Application for Writ of Injunction Relief, on behalf of the South Bay church and Bishop Hodges, with Justice Elena Kagan of the United States Supreme Court on May 23, 2020. On May 25, 2020, Gov. Newsom announced he was opening up the churches in California, but churches alone were capped with the 25% or no-more-than 100-person limits on attendance, no matter the size of the church or other contagion-related variables. Promptly on May 26, 2020, LiMandri, the Thomas More Society, and Ms. Dhillon filed a Supplemental Brief in Support of their Emergency Application for Writ of Injunction, taking Newsom to task for imposing these limitations on churches, restricting religious exercise as a separate, disfavored category of human endeavor.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s response to the filing was to try to convince the high court that its “highly reticulated patchwork of designated activities and accompanying guidelines make sense from a public health standpoint” and that the church is no longer being harmed because the state is now permitting them to hold worship services, but ignoring altogether, let alone purporting to justify, the arbitrary, biased cap of 100 people. Newsom thus claims that his softening of restrictions, despite the discriminatory cap on worship, makes South Bay’s claims moot.

Not so, according to Brejcha. “This reveals the main problem with California’s position—that the violation of the constitutional rights of people of faith is indisputably clear. The eleventh hour attempts by California to evade the critical issue of anti-religious discrimination fails to mitigate, much less cure, the damage incurred,” he stated. “Governor Newsom and his Attorney General Becerra need tutelage in Constitutional Law 101,” he said. “Religious liberty is our First Liberty, embodied in our foundational charter. No authority can justify the extraordinary claim that this or any other emergency affords him or her the power to single out religious belief and practice for separate, unequal treatment so long as the leader claims to be acting in ‘good faith.’ Fleeing just dictatorial decrees is what drove our Founders to flee Europe and establish our free country!”

Read the Thomas More Society’s Reply Brief in Support of Emergency Application for Writ of Injunction Relief Requested by Sunday, May 31, 2020, on behalf of South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Bishop Arthur Hodges III, filed May 29, 2020, with the United States Supreme Court in South Bay United Pentecostal Church, et al v. Gavin Newsom, here.

SOURCE Thomas More Society

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