3 California churches sue Gov. Newsom over church shutdowns

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The lawsuit seeks to block Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order and two county orders designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

When churches in California actually start suing over losing their Constitutional rights, you know things are getting tense in the United States.

Three Southern California churches sued Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials on April 13, arguing that social distancing requirements violate the 1st Amendment right to freedom of religion and assembly. They say that the state and local orders are too broad and that churches can practice social distancing just like grocery stores and other venues considered essential and allowed to remain open.

The suit, which also names state Attorney General Xavier Becerra and officials of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, seeks to block Newsom’s month-old stay-at-home order and two county orders designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus by having people mostly stay at home.

The order closes businesses except for those deemed “essential” by government officials, and bans free assembly. The order doesn’t list places of worship among critical infrastructure, where face-to-face contact is permitted.

The governor’s office has been silent on the suit.

One plaintiff, Senior Pastor James Moffatt of Church Unlimited in Indio, was fined $1,000 for violating Riverside County’s order with a Palm Sunday service, according to the lawsuit.

Moffatt “believes that scripture commands him as a pastor to lay hands on people and pray for them, this includes the sick,” the suit reads. “Moffatt also believes that he is required by scripture to baptize individuals, something that cannot be done at an online service.”

Also named in the suit are a parishioner, the pastor of Shield of Faith Family Church in Fontana and the pastor of Word of Life Ministries International in Riverside, which has 20 to 30 regular attendees.

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