Many Christians on the West Coast are tired of the unfair COVID-19 restrictions on worship, with many equating the treatment to “persecution.”
Now, they’re getting some long-overdue relief, thanks to two back-to-back Supreme Court decisions in favor of religious liberty. In late November, the justices ruled that it is discriminatory and unconstitutional for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to place stringent COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings while allowing large numbers of people to fill places of business and other non-religious establishments.
With that precedent set, the Supreme Court then directed California judges to reconsider their prior rulings on the state’s COVID-19 restrictions on church gatherings, including its current ban on indoor worship that affects 99 percent of the population. Their order also provided “injunctive relief” to active case litigant Harvest Rock Church by remanding the case back to a California district court that had previously turned away the church’s challenge to the restrictions.
Even before yesterday’s California order, churches there had gained confidence in the rightness of their cause and started pushing back. Destiny Church in Rocklin, Calif., had already been disobeying Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders by holding indoor services, but Pastor Greg Farrington began this past Sunday’s service by reading from the Court’s New York decision. Quoting Justice Neil Gorsuch, he told the congregation, “There is no world in which the Constitution tolerates a color-coded executive edict that opens liquor stores … and bike shops but shutters churches.”
Farrington then remarked, “The Supreme Court of the United States of America — yeah! We have a biblical mandate and First Amendment rights!”
Other California churches also believe that the Supreme Court decision is a turning point and are taking steps to stand up to the state. Dean Broyles, a lawyer for Culture Christian Church, one of multiple churches that has taken legal action against the governor, said that the Supreme Court decision shows that “the Constitution is not suspended by the virus,” then predicted: “You’re going to see more and more churches defying the order.”
California churches had previously seen their religious liberty hamstrung by the Supreme Court. In May, the justices ruled 5-4 in favor of Newsom in a religious liberty case brought by South Bay United Pentecostal Church, and then over the summer, they also ruled against a church in Nevada. Things have changed since then, however. California has imposed even more severe restrictions on churches and conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett has replaced liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Court.
The Court’s most recent decision affirmed that, even in an increasingly secular society and even in the midst of a public health crisis, churches cannot be treated as second-class citizens. Paul Jonna, a lawyer for the South Bay church, said of the New York decision: “It’s a game-changer. The restrictions in California are far worse than New York’s.”
New York restricted church attendance to 10 or 25 attendees depending on the size of the congregation, but California has now banned any indoor services in any county that has been placed in its most restrictive category; currently, 51 counties, where more than 99 percent of the population resides, are in the “purple” tier.
Two days before the New York ruling, Harvest Rock Church of Pasadena had filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, asking for an emergency injunction against California’s newest order.
“For over nine months, the Governor has continued to discriminate against Churches’ religious worship services while permitting myriad nonreligious entities to continue to gather without numerical restrictions inside the same house of worship and in other external comparable congregate assemblies,” the church argued in its brief.
California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra asked the Supreme Court to ignore the request. Newsom and his legal team have put more restrictions on churches because they claim worship services are “super-spreader” events and, as such, pose more risk than other populous activities like shopping or outdoor protests.
The restrictions don’t just address where churches can hold worship services and how many can attend, but they also tell churches how to worship, even banning singing and chanting, for example.
Sacramento’s Capital Christian Center chief of operations Jason Batt, said that in light of the decision in the New York case, the church is, “taking a fresh look” and “reading the ruling in depth.” Batt said the church believes it can safely hold in-person services but would consult with health officials.
Sam Rodriguez, lead pastor of New Season Worship in Sacramento, said that he stopped holding services when the pandemic first hit, but considering the Supreme Court ruling and the toll the lockdowns are taking on his church members, he refuses to close his doors again.
“There’s a practical, pragmatic, middle-of-the-road solution,” he said, noting that his church members wear masks and social distance during service. “…but don’t shut me down if you’re not going to shut other things down.…We get calls about domestic abuse, child abuse, about addiction now that was not there before in certain families. Churches are essential. Locking them down is producing so many long-term negative consequences.”
Meanwhile, Christians in California’s neighbor to the north are insisting that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID orders are tantamount to “persecution.” Hundreds of protestors gathered over the weekend to protest Brown’s restrictions on churches. The Oregon Knights of Columbus organized the protest, where chaplain Theodore Lange said, “We don’t do this for our own sake. We do this in solidarity with the millions of Christians who have lost their lives for Christ. We do this for future generations. We do this because we love God, we love the United States, and we love Oregon.”
Brown originally restricted church attendance to 25 people but later relaxed restrictions to 25 percent capacity or 100 people, whichever is less, after protests by religious leaders. Now, with her new COVID “freeze,” she has reinstated the original limits.
Many of the protestors were Vietnamese Christians, some of whom had experienced persecution in their former country. Young Tran, a refugee, said, “We are here today to speak in one voice: Stop the religious repression…. It happened in our former country, a communist and a socialist country, and it’s starting to happen here now.”
Father Ansgar Pham, pastor of Our Lady of La Vang Parish, said, “We never thought that when we escaped from Vietnam that we would be persecuted here in the United States. That is really painful.”
While many might see their statements as hyperbolic, given that Christians aren’t being beaten or killed, these Christians have experienced actual persecution in a communist nation, lending credence to their claims. As government exercises more control and increasingly restricts religious freedom, the word “persecution” does grow more applicable.
Oregon has implemented a tiered system similar to California’s, labeling counties as “extreme risk, high risk, or lower risk.” Anyone living in the 21 counties labeled “extreme risk” are allowed to have gatherings of no more than six people in their home. The state chose to use the term “lower risk” rather than “low risk” as it tries to convince people to take COVID-19 seriously.
State health officer and epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said, “We believe that by implementing this framework, it will enable us to better manage the impacts of COVID-19 through the winter.”
Clackamas County Public Health Director Philip Mason called the restrictions a “call to action.” He warned, “Your individual choices and behaviors and your plan to approach this holiday season really does have an impact on our essential healthcare workers. We know COVID fatigue is very real, but it’s still here and we need to do everything we possibly can to prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed.”
It remains to be seen how the recent Supreme Court ruling will impact future efforts to impose COVID-19 restrictions on churches. It is encouraging that the Court recognizes the importance of the freedom to exercise one’s religion. After all, as the framers of the Constitution could see so clearly, church is essential — especially in hard times.
Check out the Falkirk Center podcast with Pastor John MacArthur on why church is essential: