Congregants worship at South Bay Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista in June 2019 photo.
Congregants worship at South Bay Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista in June 2019 photo. Image via Mark Araos on foursquare.com

A Chula Vista pastor and Carmel Valley rabbi Friday sued Gov. Gavin Newsom, Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Sheriff Bill Gore and other officials for not including churches and other places of worship among the state’s Stage 2 sectors cleared for reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

South Bay United Pentecostal Church, the church’s senior pastor Bishop Arthur Hodges III and Rabbi Mendel Polichenco of Chabad of Carmel Valley take issue with places of worship being slotted as a Stage 3 sector within the state’s reopening plan, which would also include “salons, tattoo parlors, gyms, bars and movie theaters,” according to the lawsuit filed in San Diego federal court.

Lawsuit aiming to open houses of worship to services. (PDF)

“This new regime, where manufacturing, schools, offices and childcare facilities can reopen — but places of worship cannot — is mind-boggling,” the complaint states, referring to industries considered for reopening during the latter part of Stage 2.

“The churches and pastors of California are no less `essential’ than its retail, schools and offices to the health and well-being of its residents.”

The lawsuit alleges state and local elected officials have “intentionally denigrated California churches and pastors and people of faith by relegating them to third-class citizenship.”

The suit not only challenges Newsom’s stay-at-home order, but also public health orders issued by the county and city of San Diego, as unconstitutional.

The 47-page suit states that many religious activities require in-person services, but are prohibited by the state’s order.

“Zoom meetings and other teleconferencing applications are inadequate substitutes” for South Bay Pentecostal, while for Chabad of Carmel Valley, such options are “insufficient for amassing the required quorum to commence a Shabbat or Shacharit service because the rabbinical mitzvahs require that at least 10 men be physically present in the same space.”

Similar rationales were part of a Campo church’s lawsuit against San Diego County that sought to open its doors for Easter Sunday services.

Lawsuit says South Bay Pentecostal Church has plenty of room for social distancing. Photo via lawsuit

U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant denied the request from Abiding Place Ministries, though the county amended its public health order after the fact to allow drive-in services, which the church had sought as an alternative.

Both Hodges and Polichenco hold that their places of worship are large enough to accommodate worshippers while maintaining proper social distancing, and state that masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment can be integrated into their services. They also state that any congregants who are sick will be required to stay home.

“To be blunt, California’s present regime, which mandates that Californians who need the spirit of almighty God settle for the lesser spirits dispensed out of California’s liquor stores, is demeaning and denigrating to all persons of faith,” the suit states.

The South Bay church has a large sanctuary that provides ample room to accommodate the six feet of social distancing required by county and CDC requirements. Chabad of Carmel Valley can accommodate distances of up to 10 feet per person, the suit says.

“Moreover, should the amount of congregants threaten to overwhelm the social distancing guidelines, additional services can be added to accommodate smaller gatherings that would satisfy those guidelines,” the suit said of the Chula Vista church.

The church says it can integrate masks, gloves, screens, veils and other screening mechanisms in order to protect congregants during all services, including Sunday worship, baptisms and funerals.

“Furthermore, the church will encourage anyone uncomfortable with gathering during the pandemic to stay at home,” the suit says. “The church will also require that anyone who is sick or has symptoms to stay at home.”

Polichenco also is director of Chabad Without Borders and became the Tijuana Jewish community’s rabbi as the first official representative of the Chabad movement in Mexico.

“As rabbi, he also founded the first and only Jewish Day School in the state of Baja California, which remained open for seven years,” the suit said.

Because the orders prohibit religious assembly, the required quorum of 10 men cannot be marshaled, the suit says.

“As a result, Rabbi Polichenco is unable to hold any funerals, and members of his congregation are left to nurse their heartbreak in silence,” the suit says.

“During any given week, the church distributes between three and 12 tons of food. The church has also been publicly fêted for its efforts by the mayor of Chula Vista,” the suit says. Photo via suit

The orders also have forced Polichenco to cancel bar mitzvahs.

The clergy are represented by Rancho Santa Fe-based attorneys Charles S. LiMandri, Paul M. Jonna and Jeffrey M. Trissell as well as two lawyers from the Thomas More Society and three from the Dhillon Law Group, whose principal Harmeet K. Dhillon is a Republican official and founder of the Center For American Liberty.

In 2017, LiMandri represented parents who sued the San Diego Unified School District over its anti-bullying policy focused on Muslim students.

In 2012 LiMandri founded the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund to help pay for his pro bono work on behalf of religious groups.

Updated at 4:45 p.m. May 8, 2020

— City News Service contributed to this report.

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