Pastors at three churches in the Inland Empire — in Riverside and San Bernardino counties — who believe they should be allowed to keep their houses of worship open during the pandemic have filed a First Amendment lawsuit against state and county officials that they seem destined to lose.
Having missed the news about the rabbis dying in New Jersey after continuing to perform services and funeral rites in a community struck by the coronavirus, or the recent news about the Virginia pastor who ignored social distancing orders and subsequently died himself, a trio of (apparently evangelical) pastors in Southern California say that Governor Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Xavier Bacerra, and county health officials have violated their First Amendment right to freedom of religion and assembly.
As the Associated Press reports, the plaintiffs in the ridiculous if predictable lawsuit are James Moffatt, senior pastor at Church Unlimited in Indio — who was recently fined $1,000 by Riverside County for holding services on Palm Sunday — Pastor Liz Scales of Shield of Faith Family Church in Fontana, along with one of her parishioners; and Pastor Brenda Wood of Word of Life Ministries International in Riverside.
Wood can be seen in a Facebook post holding an albeit sparsely attended Easter Sunday service in a parking lot with the hashtag #churchesareessential.
Also on Facebook, Pastor Scales writes, "Moses went to Pharaoh and said let my people go to worship God we are asking for the same to the governor we know that in this time of need we need to God... There were many plagues back then and Moses's time but they never stopped worshiping God and going to the Tabernacle."
In the suit, per the AP, Pastor Moffatt says he "believes that Scripture commands him as a pastor to lay hands on people and pray for them, this includes the sick," and that "that he is required by Scripture to baptize individuals, something that cannot be done at an online service."
Plaintiffs contend that they should be able to continue worship activities using proper social distancing, much as people are allowed to continue grocery and hardware shopping.
The lawsuit was filed in the federal court for the Central District of California by none other than Harmeet K. Dhillon, the San Francisco Republican party official who was formerly vice chairwoman of the California Republican Party, in her role as chief executive of the Center for American Liberty. She founded the organization in 2019 in order to help steer Republican election strategy. Perhaps the suit is simply meant to gain attention for what may become a talking point for President Trump in the months to come? Because you know how much he loves religion.
In a characteristically reactionary statement to the Associated Press, Dhillon says, "If a Californian is able to go to Costco or the local marijuana shop or liquor store and buy goods in a responsible, socially distanced manner, then he or she must be allowed to practice their faith using the same precautions."
This suit follows a similar one filed by a small church in Campo, in San Diego County, which was thrown out by a federal judge last week. As the AP reports, U.S. District Judge Cynthia A. Bashant cited a Supreme Court ruling in saying that the right to freedom of religion doesn’t "include the right to expose the community ... to communicable disease."
Also, in Merced County over the holiday weekend, Pastor Fernando Aguas was cited by the county sheriff for holding an Easter Sunday service at Iglesia De Cristo that was attended by 50 to 60 people — with the front doors of the church locked.
The Governor's Office has yet to comment on the latest lawsuit.
Photo: Akira Hojo