Large worship places will have trouble meeting new CA guidelines; Chula Vista South Bay United Pentecostal appeals to U.S. Supreme Court

By Michael Hernandez

 

CHULA VISTA—The new California Public Health guidelines released Monday will be difficult for large worship places which limits attendance to 25 percent of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower.  Chances are that larger worship places will need three services to accommodate 300 persons.

 

(Editor’s Note: To see the 13-page COVID-19 Industry Guidance:  Places of Worship and Providers of Religious Services and Cultural Ceremonies May 25 guidelines go to:  https://covid19.ca.gov/pdf/guidance-places-of-worship.pdf.)

 

Other California Public Health guidelines released Monday include:

  • Physical distancing to the maximum extent possible (six-feet of distancing);
  • Frequent handwashing and regular cleaning and disinfection (especially high traffic areas) with hand sanitizer and paper towels;
  • Employees and volunteers have to be trained on how to keep the virus from spreading;
  • Provide temperature and/or symptoms screenings for all staff (can be done at home);
  • People attending encouraged to wear a mask (not required by Ventura County);
  • Discourage singing and group recitations;
  • Discourage sharing items used in worship and religious services;
  • Consider limiting the number of people that use the restroom at one time to allow for physical distancing;
  • Establish directional passageways for foot traffic, if possible; and
  • Discourage handshakes, hugs and similar greeting that break physical distance.

 

The guidelines state it “will be critical to have in place appropriate processes to identify new cases of illness and when they are identified, to intervene quickly and work with public health authorities to halt the spread of the virus.”

 

The attendance limitation will be in effect for the first 21-days of a county public health department department’s approval of religious services at places of worship within their jurisdictions.   Translation:  Large houses of worship will need to ask permission from governmental authorities to meet—which is being legally challenged as a 1st Amendment issue by a San Diego County church.

 

The Chula Vista South Bay United Pentecostal Church on Sunday appealed thru its lawyers* to the U.S. Supreme Court (in a 43-page legal brief with two Exhibits:  from both the Appeals and District Court) on behalf of Bishop Arthur Hodges.   The appeal for relief from executive orders issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom came after a federal appeals court panel rejected a similar emergency application Friday just hours after President Donald J. Trump declared on Friday that churches were “essential.”

(*Editor’s Note: The church and Hodges are represented in the case by the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, as well as California lawyers pursuing a series of similar legal challenges under the banner of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund.  In total, South Bay United Pentecostal Church has 10 attorneys representing their case before the U.S. Supreme Court.)

A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel split 2-1 with the majority declining to go against the state government because of health dangers posed by the ongoing pandemic.

“We’re dealing here with a highly contagious and often fatal disease for which there presently is no known cure,’” Judges Barry Silverman and Jacqueline Nguyen wrote. “In the words of Justice Robert Jackson, if a ‘court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.’”

Silverman, is a Clinton appointee, and Nguyen is an Obama appointee. However, the third judge on the panel is Trump appointee Daniel Collins who weighed in with an 18-page dissent arguing that Newsom’s orders are impermissibly intruding on religious freedom protected by the First Amendment.

“I do not doubt the importance of the public health objectives that the State puts forth, but the State can accomplish those objectives without resorting to its current inflexible and over-broad ban on religious services,” Collins wrote.

Collins noted that the orders allow many workplaces to open, but ban religious gatherings even when they could meet the social distancing standards imposed on other activities that are now permitted.

“By explicitly and categorically assigning all in-person ‘religious services’ to a future Phase 3 — without any express regard to the number of attendees, the size of the space, or the safety protocols followed in such services — the State’s Reopening Plan undeniably ‘discriminate[s] on its face’ against ‘religious conduct,’” the judge said.

This legal dispute (reported in a May 25 Politico article written by Josh Gerstein) may turn on how much weight the justices choose to give to a 115-year-old Supreme Court precedentJacobson v. Massachusetts, which upheld a mandatory vaccination scheme for smallpox.

Politico reported lawyers for Newsom have argued that the decision gives states broad powers during a public health emergency and effectively supersedes typical protections for First Amendment activity, including religious practice.

While the 1905 high court ruling remains on the books with no case since where the justices have grappled with similar issues, in his dissent from the Friday 9th Circuit order, Collins sounded skeptical about the sweep of the century-old case.

“Even the most ardent proponent of a broad reading of Jacobson must pause at the astonishing breadth of this assertion of government power over the citizenry, which in terms of its scope, intrusiveness, and duration is without parallel in our constitutional tradition,” Collins said.

“We are going to fight this to get a favorable decision,” said Bishop Art Hodges on a Tuesday call of the Judeo-Christian Caucus–comprised of California legislators and constituents upholding Judeo-Christian values in government.  “We are on the side of right.  God’s will—will be done.”

Bishop Hodges heads up a network of 4,000 United Pentecostal churches nationwide—some 200 are located in Southern California.  (Editor’s Note:  For more information on the Judeo-Christian Caucus you can email [email protected] or call:  888-725-8654).

Bishop Hodges ended Tuesday’s Judeo-Christian Caucus call by recalling 2 Chronicles 7:14 and praying:  “Hear our prayers, forgive us, heal our land.  We repent for our nation.  Help us to turn this nation back to you.  Let us win the battles which are humanly impossible.  Turn California around.”

(Editor’s Note:  To see the 101 page legal brief filed to Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan go to: https://www.thomasmoresociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/South-Bay-v.-Newsom-App-for-Stay.003.pdf.)

Michael Hernandez, Co-Founder of the Citizens Journal—Ventura County’s online news service; editor of the History Makers Report and founder of History Makers International—a community nonprofit serving youth and families in Ventura County, is a former Southern California daily newspaper journalist and religion and news editor. He worked 25 years as a middle school teacher in Monrovia and Los Angeles Unified School Districts. Mr. Hernandez can be contacted by email at [email protected].


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