California Faces Legal Battle Over Coronavirus Restrictions

California governor Gavin Newsom (D.) / Getty Images
August 27, 2020

A judge rejected Los Angeles County's bid to shut down a California megachurch that is challenging the state's restrictions on in-person religious gatherings, setting the stage for a protracted battle over coronavirus orders.

Grace Community Church is attempting to return to in-person services over the objections of local regulators. Paul Jonna, special counsel for the Thomas More Society, a religious liberty law firm, told the Washington Free Beacon the state government should be consistent in how it regards First Amendment activity. He pointed to the permissiveness of local and state leaders who publicly condoned and supported large public gatherings to protest George Floyd's death in police custody.

"First Amendment activity is First Amendment activity. Certainly, protesting is protected First Amendment activity, but so is worshiping God in church. It's a double standard," Jonna said.

Los Angeles is not the only county facing legal challenges from religious institutions over its handling coronavirus.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D.) put in place a waiver application system that requires elementary schools to apply for a waiver to reopen, provided the school's counties reach certain benchmarks. Newsom's administration had removed Santa Cruz county from the state's watchlist because of the improving coronavirus situation. Despite the state's guidance, the county is not permitting schools to reopen for in-person classes because of insufficient virus testing resources, according to a county health officer. First Liberty Institute, another religious law firm, sent a letter on behalf of St. Abraham’s Classical Christian Academy to county health officials arguing that shutting down the parochial school "violates the school’s right to free speech, free exercise, and religious autonomy."

"The experts at the CDC have concluded that in-person schooling is in the best interests of students. The County of Santa Cruz should not stand in the way of parents who simply want to follow the CDC’s evidence-based recommendations for their children," senior counsel for First Liberty Institute Stephanie Taub told the Free Beacon.

The letter threatened potential legal action if the county did not change its policy. If the school takes legal action, it will join Grace Community Church in taking California officials to court over local restrictions on communal activities during the coronavirus.

The Santa Cruz Health Agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Both the school and Grace Community Church are looking to adjust to providing services in the midst of a pandemic. The coronavirus situation in California has improved, but health experts are warning of a resurgence in the fall after the state broke records for having the highest case count in the nation.

Jonna argued that the state of California is targeting the church.

"The second you have a church who dares to gather indoors or dares to challenge any of these health orders, not only do they send them a threatening letter from a law firm, but they go in court and try to get a temporary restraining order and harass this church," Jonna said.

Neither Newsom nor Democratic attorney general Xavier Becerra returned requests for comment.

A hearing in the Grace Community Church's suit against Los Angeles County is scheduled for Sept. 4.