Congregants worship at South Bay Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista in June 2019 photo. Image via

A Chula Vista church that has repeatedly filed legal challenges to the state’s COVID-19-related restrictions on indoor worship was denied a request Thursday to open its doors for indoor Christmas Day services.

South Bay United Pentecostal Church, which was denied a preliminary injunction against the state of California for the third time by a San Diego federal judge earlier this week, sought an emergency injunction to reopen for indoor Christmas services while its appeal of U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant’s order worked its way through the courts.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the emergency injunction motion on Thursday, though the church’s appeal of Bashant’s ruling remains on track for oral arguments in mid-January.

“We are extremely disappointed that the Ninth Circuit has yanked the joy of Christmas away from South Bay United Pentecostal Church and its congregants,” said Charles LiMandri, one of the attorneys representing the church. “By refusing to allow South Bay to participate in the worldwide celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the court is continuing to perpetuate the violations of religious liberty that Gov. Newsom has been executing for nine months under the guise of COVID-19 prevention.”

In a statement, the church’s legal counsel said it will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in the case.

California’s regional stay-at-home order prohibits indoor activities across a broad range of industries, but does allow for outdoor religious services.

The church has argued that outdoor worship and services held over video-conferencing are “inadequate substitutes” and that the public health orders prohibit the church “from holding the services mandated by scripture.”

It’s also argued that California arbitrarily allowed certain sectors considered essential to stay open and conduct indoor operations, while discriminating against religious institutions.

The church was denied a challenge to the state restrictions by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, but a handful of more recent Supreme Court decisions — including the cases of Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn — reopened the door for another look at South Bay United’s case.

On Monday, Bashant issued her third preliminary injunction denial since the church initially filed suit, echoing many of her previous rationales for denying the church’s requests.

“The court does not doubt that not being able congregate indoors imposes a burden on plaintiffs’ religion. Nevertheless, the court also recognizes that the burden is a temporary one, with widespread vaccination in close sight,” Bashant wrote in her Monday order. “The court concludes that it serves the public interest to continue to protect the population as a whole, in this dire phase of the pandemic.”

Bashant also acknowledged a recent preliminary injunction request granted by San Diego Superior Court Judge Joel R. Wohlfeil, which would have reopened restaurants and live entertainment venues across the county. That injunction has since been stayed by an appellate court at the behest of the state and San Diego County, which argued the judge overreached in a case that initially only concerned a pair of San Diego strip clubs seeking to reopen.

Regarding that ruling, Bashant wrote, “It is worth highlighting the dichotomy between that ruling and this one as an example of the dangers of having individual judges make public health policy.”

— City News Service

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.