A California pastor and his wife are suing in federal court to stop what they consider dangerous and illegal harassment by La Habra Heights’ city manager and a private citizen with whom she allegedly is working against the church.
Pastor Joe Garcia of World Aflame Ministries and his wife, Marie, a senior administrator for the church that meets in another congregation’s building in La Habra Heights, contend they are being singled out illegally by the municipality 25 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
Named as defendants are La Habra Heights City Manager Fabiola Huerta and city resident Juan Garcia in the suit filed on behalf of the Garcias’s church Oct. 28 in the U.S. District Court for Central California by attorneys jointly representing two groups, Advocates for Faith & Freedom and the National Center for Law & Policy.
“Defendants have repeatedly falsely accused Plaintiffs of violating health orders. Realizing that Plaintiffs were beyond reproach in complying with federal, state, county, and city laws and public health orders, Defendants decided to focus on local subjective noise ordinances to continue to harass and persecute Plaintiffs,” the Garcias contend in their lawsuit.
“The underlying issues giving rise to this action started with Defendant Juan Garcia, who lives near the church where Plaintiffs hold worship services,” the suit continues.
“In July 2020, after Plaintiffs moved their worship services outside to comply with COVID-19 health orders, Defendant Juan Garcia started yelling at church ushers and members and taking video and pictures of the church members on a weekly basis.
“Juan Garcia made complaints based on false allegations to the Los Angeles County Health Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which visited the church numerous times during worship services and found no legal violations.
“Juan Garcia also made and continues to make complaints based on false allegations to the City of La Habra Heights (the ‘City’). The City and Fabiola Huerta in her official capacity as city manager, erroneously gave credence to Garcia’s false accusations and unlawfully joined Juan Garcia in conspiring to harass, fine, and cite Plaintiffs, in spite of evidence that Plaintiffs are in full compliance with state and county health orders and with the La Habra Heights Municipal Code (‘LHHMC’).”
In the suit, Huerta and Garcia are variously described as videotaping congregants, shouting at them, and taking photographs of them before, during, and after services.
Huerta, as an individual, “has also unlawfully joined Juan Garcia in conspiring to harass Plaintiffs. She has disrupted worship services by taking videos and pictures of Plaintiffs, repeatedly stalked worship services in an unmarked car with an unknown male passenger, and threatened Plaintiffs on multiple occasions,” the suit claims.
Huerta told The Epoch Times on Nov. 2 that she would provide a statement in response to the suit but didn’t do so in time to be included in this story; Garcia couldn’t be located for comment.
The World Aflame congregation holds two outside services on Sunday afternoons and one on Wednesday evenings in a building owned by the Hillcrest Congregational Church, which, the suit contends, has received no harassment from either of the defendants.
The World Aflame congregation is multi-ethnic and includes approximately 165 attendees in the Sunday services and 90 attendees in the mid-week service, which is devoted to a Bible study.
The World Aflame litigation is the latest in a steadily growing list of California congregations that have gone to court over what they deem as excessive and discriminatory regulations issued earlier this year by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to contain the spread of the CCP virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus.
The regulations have been used by local California officials to ban all indoor and many outdoor church services, while other entities such as bars haven’t been treated similarly.
Among the congregations that have gone to court are Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, led by nationally known Senior Pastor John MacArthur, and Calvary Chapel San Jose in Silicon Valley, led by Pastor Mike McClure.
“It is unconscionable to think that public officials’ alleged fear over COVID-19 has been so overblown that a small church who is complying with all state and county health guidelines is considered a ‘nuisance’ by city officials,” attorney Robert Tyler said in a statement announcing the suit.
“The attack on churches under the guise of COVID-19 has gone too far, and for too long. This should be a wake-up call to people of faith,” he said.
His firm, Tyler & Bursch, LLP, is associated with Advocates for Faith & Freedom and also represents McClure in similar litigation involving Santa Clara County, near San Francisco.
Contact Mark Tapscott at [email protected]