“California’s embattled Gov. Gavin Newsom has been dealt a fresh blow after a federal judge ordered him to pay $1.35 million over the state’s draconian lockdown of 3,000 churches during the coronavirus pandemic.
In his capacity as governor, Newsom was ordered to pay the costs and attorney fees for a lawsuit brought by a Pasadena church that made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The May 14 order told Newsom and all state officials to stop regulating church attendance unless a specific set of infection statistics occur, which is unlikely.
“He is the worst governor in America” for religious freedom, said Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit law firm that represented plaintiff Harvest Rock Church. “The church stayed open [during the lockdown], and the pastor and parishioners were threatened with daily criminal charges that were up to a year in prison.”
This is the nation’s first statewide permanent injunction against COVID-19 restrictions on churches and places of worship. Newsom is facing a recall from voters who are angry over his COVID-19 policies.
The lockdown started on March 19, 2020, allowing only essential businesses to remain open. Churches were not included on this list. On May 26, 2020, Newsom allowed churches to open at 25% capacity but with less than 100 people. This was pulled back during the summer with an additional lockdown that lasted until April 8, 2021, for most Californians. The state had enacted a color-coded tier system that allowed limited societal openings that were almost impossible to meet.
Along the way, Newsom also imposed restrictions on singing, outdoor churches, and Bible studies.
The restrictions were only lifted when a series of reprimands came down from the Supreme Court. But Harvest Rock saw itself as an essential business and has stayed fully open since May 31, 2020. The ministry also has Southern California satellite churches in downtown Los Angeles, Santa Ana, and Corona.
“Gov. Newsom’s COVID restrictions intentionally discriminated against churches while providing preferential treatment to many secular businesses and gatherings,” Staver said. “What’s important is this ruling is permanent. He cannot ever do this again.”
U.S. District Court Judge Jesus G. Bernal ruled that restrictions would only be allowed on church gatherings if child infections rise 100%, statewide cases are at least 26 per 100,000 people, or available ICU hospital bed capacity falls below 20%. At that point, the state may only impose restrictions identical to other gatherings.
“Any new public health precautions on religious worship services and gatherings at places of worship not in the guidance [are included],” Bernal ruled.
The state updated its COVID-19 policy page on May 4 after one of the Supreme Court rulings: “Effective immediately, location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory but are strongly recommended. Additionally, the restrictions on indoor singing and chanting are recommended only.”