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

A Chula Vista church’s request to hold in-person services during the COVID-19 pandemic was denied Friday by a San Diego federal judge, who rejected the church’s argument that the state’s reopening plan is dismissive of the religious rights of Californians.

South Bay United Pentecostal Church and its senior pastor, Bishop Arthur Hodges III, sued Gov. Gavin Newsom and a host of other state and local officials last week for placing churches and other places of worship under Stage 3 of California’s reopening plan, which also includes movie theaters, salons and gyms.

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

Plaintiffs’ attorney Paul Jonna argued the state’s plan makes “arbitrary exceptions” in recently opening certain industries under Stage 2, while churches are characterized as “higher-risk workplaces” under Stage 3.

Jonna said South Bay United is not asking for a complete return to normal services, and would abide by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines regarding social distancing, masks and other precautions against the virus.

“For the millions of faithful in California, religion is needed in these times more than ever,” Jonna said. “It might be hard for governing officials to understand, especially if they’re hostile to religion or don’t see its relevance, or if they think it’s `low reward.’ But to Bishop Hodges and millions of Californians, free exercise of religion is eternally important. To them, it’s the most essential of activities.”

In denying the church’s request for an injunction halting enforcement of the ban on religious gatherings, U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant said the state’s order placed churches under Stage 3 because “the services involve people sitting together in a closed environment for long periods of time.”

The judge noted that similar restrictions have been placed on a variety of secular industries and that alternatives such as drive-in and remote services remain in place for people to engage in worship activities.

“Individuals can practice religion in whatever way they wish, as long as they’re not sitting with each other in large groups inside,” she said.

The judge also referenced her prior ruling in a case brought by a Campo church which sought to open its doors for Easter Sunday services.

Abiding Place Ministries sued San Diego County and challenged its public health order under similar allegations, but Bashant denied the church’s request to reopen two days before Easter.

“The state may limit an individuals’ right to freely exercise his religious beliefs when faced with a serious health crisis such as the one we’re facing now with COVID-19,” the judge said. “The right to practice religion freely does not include the liberty to expose the community to communicable disease or to ill health or death.”

Deputy Attorney General Todd Grabarsky said the reopening plan remained a “work in progress” that was subject to adjustments based on the developing status of COVID-19.

He said the state deems faith-based services as essential and have authorized faith leaders to leave home “to provide congregants with worship opportunities,” such as the alternatives Bashant outlined.

“This notion that the state has been hostile to religion simply isn’t supported by the facts and how the executive order has treated religion and faith-based groups from the onset. In other words, there’s no complete or total prohibition on the ability to worship,” Grabarsky said.

Bashant ruled that limiting large public gatherings such as in-person church services was ultimately in the public’s interest.

“The only way currently known to curb the disease is to limit personal exposure,” Bashant said. “I understand it’s difficult for everyone involved, but it is in the public interest to continue to protect the population as a whole.”

Rabbi Mendel Polichenco of Chabad of Carmel Valley was originally a plaintiff in the suit, but dismissed his claims on Monday and was removed from the case. As a result, a number of defendants from the city of San Diego, including San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit, were also dismissed from the case.

Updated at 2:25 p.m. May 15, 2020

— City News Service