A California judge ordered San Diego to reopen strip clubs even as local officials crack down on churches.
San Diego Superior Court judge Joel R. Wohlfeil ordered the state to end any actions that prevent the clubs from "being allowed to provide live adult entertainment," according to the decision. The owners of two strip clubs argued that their business is legally protected speech guaranteed by the First Amendment—the same argument that churches have been making about their own services.
The judge's decision is not final as that in a full hearing, which will occur at the end of the month, but it temporarily allows the strip clubs to reopen for indoor services, as other institutions close. In their legal complaint, strip-club owners argued they have complied with social distancing requirements. They also warned that another shutdown would mean financial ruin. The judge temporarily sided with them.
Religious-liberty advocates said that the case could pave the way for lifting coronavirus restrictions against churches. Paul Jonna, special counsel for the Thomas More Society, which is representing churches challenging the restrictions, expressed confidence that this decision bodes well for the churches. If strip clubs are entitled to constitutional protections, then churches are as well, he told the Free Beacon.
"If you're going to accept that argument that dancing nude is protected speech that's so significant that it overcomes the government's interest in regulating its citizens with COVID-19 orders, then obviously the divine worship of God, which is expressly mentioned in the First Amendment, should be held to a higher standard," Jonna said.
The decision comes as San Diego moves back into a "Purple Tier" of lockdown in the midst of an increase in coronavirus cases. Churches, gyms, and schools are all closing their indoor services as the county attempts to combat the spread of the virus. The lockdown requires nonessential businesses such as churches, restaurants, and gyms to move to outdoor-only services while permitting businesses such as salons and barber shops to remain open.
Churches in California have been locked in legal struggles with state authorities for months as churches of different denominations take legal action to try to end the indefinite limitations on indoor services. Jonna said that the San Diego decision highlights "the absurdity" and double standards that have defined the state's approach to lockdowns.
"A judge who understands the Constitution will recognize the absurdity of the current state of the law," he said. "I think it's a good sign that judges are starting to question whether the government has a legitimate interest in regulating any business or industry at this point."