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Time to Fight for our right to Worship

  • 'We really need to get this to the Supreme Court': Religious liberty advocates dig in for long coronavirus war

    As churches and governments battle over pandemic restrictions on services, both sides are digging in their heels for a decisive victory.

    This week, a pastor at North Valley Baptist Church in Santa Clara, California, announced that the county had saddled him with more than $100,000 in fines for holding indoor services with singing, which are forbidden by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s July coronavirus guidelines. The pastor, Jack Trieber, demanded that the county remove the fines, saying that church funds are “God’s money.”

    “We are not closing down this church. I hope you get this message,” Trieber said in a Tuesday video directed at Santa Clara officials.

    Other churches in California have also faced fines for refusing to comply. Ventura County, a suburb of Los Angeles, in August fined Rob McCoy, pastor of Godspeak Calvary Chapel, $3,000 for holding six services against local orders. McCoy told the Washington Examiner that he has no intention to halt services — and will face jail time if the legal battle continues to escalate.

    In Los Angeles County, John MacArthur, the well-known pastor of Grace Community Church, has been embroiled in a monthslong legal battle with county officials. MacArthur, who has been holding “peaceful protest” services in his church since July, in August sued the county, alleging that it held worshipers and protests to an unequal standard with regard to social distancing.

    The county launched a countersuit hours later, saying that MacArthur was endangering public health. The county since July has been threatening a daily fine of $1,000 for as long as MacArthur does not comply with its guidelines.

    A Los Angeles judge on Thursday granted a preliminary injunction against MacArthur, ordering him to cease holding services indoors. MacArthur, in a statement, called the ruling “inexplicable” and vowed to continue holding services.

    “The scale should always tip in favor of liberty, especially for churches,” he said.

    Outside of California, many other churches are still embroiled in lawsuits, some of which began in March, when governors and local officials ordered that services either be limited or altogether banned. A federal appeals court on Wednesday heard a case concerning Calvary Chapel, a Maine church that sued Gov. Janet Mills in May for a 10-person cap on church services. That cap has since been moved up to 50 and then 100.

    In Nevada last week, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley filed with a federal appeals court in a similar case against Gov. Steve Sisolak. The governor responded by saying that he would begin to “explore” the possibility of raising the worship cap, which currently is at 50 people.

    Calvary Chapel, along with South Bay United Pentecostal, a church in California, both asked the Supreme Court to grant them a preliminary injunction so that they could worship without the fear of retaliation. In both cases, the court denied the injunction, with John Roberts as the decisive vote.

    In a short opinion, Roberts explained that because of the ever-changing conditions of coronavirus-related worship restrictions, he was not comfortable issuing an injunction.

    And, based on those rejections, it will be difficult to get a case in front of the court, said Kelly Shackelford, president of the nonprofit legal organization First Liberty Institute.

    Shackelford, whose firm has successfully argued 10 coronavirus court cases for churches since the pandemic began, said that unless states or counties begin fining churches, as they have in the case of the California churches, it will be difficult to appeal cases to higher courts.

    “But we really need to get this to the Supreme Court, and it needs to be a good case,” he said, adding that “it’s really important that we not come out of the pandemic with reduced constitutional rights.”