A small San Joaquin County evangelical church that was forced to stop meeting for Sunday services because of coronavirus restrictions is suing Gov. Gavin Newsom, arguing the state's public gathering ban violates First Amendment rights to religious freedom.
"Our civil rights are not suspended by a virus," attorney Dean R. Broyles, who is representing the Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi and its pastor, said in a statement. “For millions of Californians, their religious faith is truly ‘essential' like the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. That’s why religious liberty is one of our ‘first freedoms’ recognized by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.”
To help slow the spread of COVID-19, Newsom's statewide stay-at-home executive order has shut down businesses except those deemed essential, prohibited group gatherings and required most people to stay inside homes except for trips such as grocery shopping or medical appointments.
The Cross Culture Christian Center lawsuit, filed in Sacramento last week, asks U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez to declare that the order infringes on the church's First Amendment freedom of religion and freedom of assembly and allow it to hold in-house services so long as social distancing is followed, Broyles said.
The lawsuit says the church already was following guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before the state and county issued stay-at-home orders in mid-March. Pastor Jonathan Duncan — who leads Sunday service for roughly 27 attendees — had also recommended that his congregation follow their doctor's orders, act in the best interest of their community and wear face coverings.
Beside Newsom, the suit names Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra; Sonia Angell, state public health officer; Maggie Park, county public health officer; Marcia Cunningham, county director of emergency services; the city of Lodi; and Police Chief Tod Patterson.
The dispute between Cross Culture Christian Center and the city of Lodi began March 25 when police came to one of Duncan's Wednesday services and told him about county and state orders against public meetings. The Christian Center leases space in Bethel Open Bible Church, which stopped offering in-person services March 15.
The church retained Broyles, of the Escondido-based National Center for Law & Policy, a conservative Christian nonprofit law group. Broyles sent Lodi officials a six-page cease-and-desist letter, saying officers "disrupted a peaceful and lawful worship service" and asked them to respect the church's First Amendment rights.
On April 3, officers posted a notice from Park, San Joaquin County's interim public health officer, on the church building. The letter, addressed to Pastor Michael Allison of Bethel, said the Cross Culture Christian Church was continuing to use the Ham Lane facility and ordered it and its parking lot closed. Violation of the emergency order, the letter stated, was a misdemeanor offense punishable by fine or imprisonment.
Duncan learned on Palm Sunday morning that the locks on the building had been changed by Bethel to prevent in-person services.
“We love people and don’t want anyone to become infected,” Duncan said in a statement. “Our church believes that especially during these fearful and confusing times that church community is an essential service. People need God’s love and the church needs authentic Christian fellowship now, more than ever.”
Newsom's office and San Joaquin County officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit Tuesday.
The California Department of Public Health said it cannot comment on ongoing litigation. Becerra's office said it was "best-positioned" to respond to questions related to the state's stay-at-home order. The Lodi Police Department referred questions to the city attorney.
As of Friday, San Joaquin County had revised its guidelines on outdoor public gatherings and activities, citing a legal case in which other state pastors had challenged Newsom's order.
Under the county's amended order, faith-based organizations can hold services online or in a drive-up setting so long as people in attendance refrain from contact with each other and maintain physical distance.
Vehicles must be six feet apart and people must remain in their cars at all times. Up to five people can enter nearby buildings to host the presentation.
Lodi spokesman Jeff Hood said the updated order allows Duncan's church to resume services if it follows the new guidelines. It's now up to the Bethel property manager, Hood said.
Allison, the Bethel pastor, could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday. Even if Allison allows Duncan to host services following the county's amended order, Broyles said in an interview that "a lot more" needs to change before the lawsuit is dropped.
"If religious freedom means anything, it must at least mean that the state does not have the authority to dictate to the church its manor or mode of worship, even in times of crisis — especially in times of crisis," Broyles said in a statement. "Governor Newsom’s misguided decision to unilaterally deem faith-based meetings as 'non-essential' and to restrict the faithful only to video sermons and electronic worship makes me think of authoritarian 'big brother.'”
A number of legal challenges by faith leaders have sprouted in response to stay-at-home orders. In San Diego, a judge rejected a church's request for a temporary restraining order so it could hold Easter services. In Mississippi, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a legal document in support of a church whose members were fined for attending a parking lot service in their cars, while other citizens were allowed to attend nearby drive-in restaurants.
"If you look at the number of [law] suits and the people impacted, these are relative few and far between," said Gene Policinski, president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. "We're seeing a sincere effort by people who have particular feelings of faith or their ability to protest or assembly."
Policinski said the COVID-19 pandemic presented "complicated circumstances" and said courts examine criteria such as the duration of stay-at-home orders, public interest and whether rights of assembly are interfered with. In the Lodi case, he explained that the church's argument might have had more weight before the rise of internet tools such as Zoom, a video conference platform, were available.
"We don't surrender our First Amendment rights for any reason, but we do have to accept reasonable accommodations for limited amounts of time for solid, provable public interest that isn't targeted at one faith or belief," Policinski said.
Times staff writer Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this story