No more church bans in California: State ordered to pay $1.35 million in legal fees after shutting down churches

No more church bans in California: State ordered to pay
$1.35 million in legal fees after shutting down churches 1

CALIFORNIA — A U.S. District Court judge in California has approved a settlement of a lawsuit on behalf of a church and its related ministry against Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-California).

The implication of the settlement is that it is the first statewide and permanent injunction in the country against COVID-19 restrictions on churches and places of worship.

It is also the first time a governor will have a permanent injunction against him on behalf of houses of worship.

In addition to easing statewide restrictions that pertain to religious gatherings, California will now also pay $1.35 million to compensate the legal group that filed and won the lawsuit.

Last year, Liberty Counsel filed the lawsuit on behalf of Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry against Gov. Newsom.

The church and its ministry sued the governor over his restrictive COVID-19 lockdown order, which severely limited the size and scope of worship gatherings.

The lawsuit argued that Newsom’s draconian order was a violation of the groups’ religious freedom, and a federal judge agreed.

On May 14, the Honorable Jesus G. Bernal wrote in part:

“It is hereby ORDERED that Defendant, Gavin Newsom, in his official capacity as Governor of the State of California, all State officers, agents, employees, and all other persons in active concert or participation with him, are hereby permanently enjoined state-wide from issuing or enforcing regulations issued in connection with the COVID-19 State of Emergency declared on March 4, 2020 that impose:

“(1) any capacity or numerical restrictions on religious worship services and gatherings at places of worship … [and]

“(2) any new public health precautions on religious worship services and gatherings at places of worship not in the current guidance, unless those precautions are either identical to, or at least as favorable as, the precautions imposed on other similar gatherings of similar risk, as identified by the Supreme Court…; and

“(3) any restrictions or prohibitions on the religious exercise of singing and chanting during religious worship services and gatherings at places of worship besides generally applicable restrictions or prohibitions included in the guidance for live events and performances.”

Liberty Counsel pointed out that the settlement referenced several Supreme Court opinions, including Harvest Rock Church v. Newsom, which include a long list of similar nonreligious activity the High Court set forth as comparable gatherings, such as grocery stores, warehouses, big box stores, transportation, infrastructure, telecommunications, and more:

“In other words, churches and places of worship may never again have discriminatory restrictions placed on them that are not equally applied to a long list of ‘critical infrastructure’ or ‘essential services’ as outlined in several Supreme Court precedents cited in the settlement agreement.”

The judge’s order further clarified that it did “not prohibit the State from issuing recommendations, best practices, precautions, or other measures, as long as such promulgations make clear to the public that they are voluntary and not enforceable.”

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In a statement, Liberty Counsel noted the permanence of the ruling:

“Under the settlement agreement, discriminatory restrictions on worship and religious gatherings may no longer be applied to churches and places of worship.”

Harvest Rock Church’s founding Pastor Ché Ahn was pleased and said:

“This is a momentous day for churches in America! After nearly a yearlong battle defending our religious freedoms, our lawsuit has reached a permanent settlement in our favor.

I am thrilled to see the complete reversal of the last discriminatory restrictions against churches in California, knowing this case will act as a precedent, not only in our state, but also in our nation.

“We are incredibly grateful to our attorney Mat Staver and to Liberty Counsel for their relentless support and fierce determination. Most of all, we give all the glory to God for moving mightily in this historic season!”

Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the legal group Liberty Counsel, said:

“The district court retains jurisdiction into the foreseeable future, whether it’s next year or ten years down the road.

“If there is any violation of this order, California will be hauled back into court for contempt of court and face significant sanctions.”

Liberty Counsel said Newsom had imposed the most severe restrictions on churches and home Bible study groups in the nation, so the settlement represents a victory:

“So, this is a great victory and it covers every church and place of worship in California [where some] churches were fined over $3 million.”

Due to the injunction those fines will now go away, according to Staver. In a statement, he said:

“Governor Gavin Newsom’s COVID restrictions intentionally discriminated against churches while providing preferential treatment to many secular businesses and gatherings.

“The Supreme Court intervened multiple times to provide relief. California may never again place discriminatory restrictions on churches and places of worship.

“Gov. Gavin Newsom has now been permanently quarantined and may not violate the First Amendment rights of churches and places of worship again.

“We are grateful for Pastor Ché Ahn, Harvest Rock Church, and Harvest International Ministry. Pastor Ahn’s leadership and courage has toppled the tyranny and freed every pastor and church in California.”

Staver also noted:

“Maine right now is the most restrictive in the country. We represent Pastor Ken Graves of Calvary Chapel of Bangor, and our goal is to make sure Caesar never can go and touch these churches anymore.”

Liberty Counsel plans to use the settlement in California this past week to end coronavirus restrictions for churches around the country.

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