Escondido attorney Dean Robert Broyles has led the Christian conservative National Center for Law & Policy since 2007. Image via deanbroylesesq.wordpress.com

A North County lawyer who once helped defeat California in court is taking on the state again — this time on behalf of a Lodi church seeking to hold in-person services despite shutdown orders.

Dean Broyles of the Escondido-based National Center for Law & Policy told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday that he plans to write Gov. Gavin Newsom and file a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Cross Culture Christian Center.

On Sunday, the small evangelical congregation was locked out of its leased meeting space at Bethel Open Bible Church.

Dean Broyles’ cease-and-desist letter to Lodi city officials. (PDF)

Pastor Jon Duncan arrived Sunday morning to find that Bethel had changed the locks on the building to prevent his congregants from entering, Lodi police Lt. Michael Manetti told the L.A. Times.

On March 27, Broyles had sent five Lodi officials a cease-and-desist letter to avoid a repeat of police disrupting “a peaceful and lawful worship service” in March.

The president of the conservative Christian nonprofit wrote the mayor, police chief and others: “Consistent with CCCC’s sincerely held religious beliefs based on scripture, the church has continued to regularly meet on Sundays (the Christian Sabbath) and Wednesday evenings. However out of genuine love and concern for their neighbor, in light of COVID-19, the CCCC has been careful and diligent to discuss and observe widely recommended health and safety measures including, but not limited to, regular handwashing, social distancing, and asking the elderly, sick or immune compromised to stay at home, among others.”

Broyles — who didn’t respond to Times of San Diego requests for comment — cited the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of assembly.

“State governors, counties, municipalities and law enforcement officers do not have the unfettered discretion to unilaterally suspend or restrict the freedoms guaranteed by U.S. Constitution,” he wrote, alluding to Newsom’s executive order of March 19 that tells “all residents … to stay home or at their place of residence except as needed to maintain continuity of operations of the federal critical infrastructure sectors.”

Two days after the lockdown order, Broyles blogged: “I am deeply concerned that our reaction to the virus may do more damage than the virus itself does — both spiritually and economically.”

He asked: What is the legal justification for this and other draconian measures?

“I have been researching and searching, but haven’t found much of anything solid,” he wrote. “The expressed legal basis for massively suspending our civil rights doesn’t appear to be much more sophisticated than ‘Desperate times call for desperate measures.’ We are told the coronavirus poses an unprecedented threat, so we obediently jump in line to do whatever the government ‘experts’ say, even willingly surrendering our civil rights for the greater good.”

He asked: How long should Americans willingly submit to the suspension of their First Amendment rights?

“One week? One month? One year?” wrote the 52-year-old graduate of Regent University School of Law.

In reply to government arguments that the COVOID-19 threat is a compelling state interest, he wrote: “Perhaps, but can the government show that its remedies are narrowly tailored using the least restrictive means? Perhaps not.”

He said the government instead appears to be engaged in overkill of a mosquito — “a sledgehammer that is not only undermining religious freedom, but is doing great harm to our society and economy.”

According to its latest IRS filing, Broyles’ nonprofit is a legal defense group with $250,000 in 2017 revenues that “focuses on the protection and promotion of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights, and other civil liberties.”

Broyles took $132,000 in annual pay, according to the group’s Form 990 disclosure. It raised $1 million over the five-year period ending Dec. 31, 2017.

Dr. Maggie Park, San Joaquin County’s interim public health officer, announced the closure at Bethel Open Bible Church on Friday as her agency reported 185 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 11 deaths in the county, reported Lodi News.

Janice Magdich, city attorney of the town 35 miles south of Sacramento, was quoted as saying: “It’s unfortunate we have to go to these lengths when the threat of COVID-19 is so clear. It is gratifying, however, to see other churches in Lodi understand their responsibility to protect public health by suspending in-person gatherings.”

In October 2015, Broyles was part of team of lawyers that sued Gov. Jerry Brown, Attorney General Kamala Harris and the El Cajon city attorney, challenging the constitutionality of AB 775, the Reproductive FACT Act.

Latest IRS filing by National Center for Law & Policy, which Dean Broyles has led since 2007. (PDF)

The act required licensed medical pregnancy centers such as the Pregnancy Care Clinic of Fallbrook to post a disclosure saying the state of California provides free or low-cost abortion and contraception services and providing a phone number to refer or arrange for such services.

After three years of appeals, including a visit to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case was settled.

In October 2018, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra and attorneys for the plaintiffs — National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, Pregnancy Care Center and Fallbrook Pregnancy Resource Center — signed a deal that halted the state orders on posting abortion information.

In July 2019, federal Judge John A. Houston was informed that the plaintiffs had received attorneys’ fees totaling $958,535.80. How much Broyles got wasn’t specified.

But Broyles lost cases, too, including one in 2015 in which a state appellate court upheld a San Diego judge’s ruling that an Encinitas Union School District yoga program was secular in nature, and didn’t infringe upon religious rights.

(Broyles opted not to appeal.)

On Monday, the Cross Culture Christian Center said on its website: “UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE DUE TO COVID-19 CHRISTIAN CULTURAL CENTER WORSHIP SERVICES AND SCHEDULED EVENTS ARE TEMPORARILY SUSPENDED HOWEVER OUR PASTORAL CARE SERVICES ARE FULLY ENGAGED FOR COUNSELING, PRAYER & FUNERALS.”

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