California churches seeking relief from COVID-19 restrictions this week won a major victory.
A California district court ordered Tuesday that the state must pay Pasadena-based megachurch Harvest Rock Church $1.35 million in attorney’s fees for litigation surrounding the state’s lockdown order.
During the pandemic, the governor imposed COVID-19 restrictions that affected churches more than businesses, the court found.
The decision is the first injunction against COVID-19 restrictions in the United States. And according to Liberty Counsel, the law firm hired by Harvest Rock, the decision will permanently free California churches to hold worship services without discriminatory restrictions.
Harvest Rock celebrated the court victory on Facebook.
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“When the enemy’s tactic was to silence the body of Christ, God placed courage in our Pastors heart to stand and fight!” the church’s post reads. “Today, we stand on the side of victory, not only by the Supreme Court but also the District Court! He who began a good work, will carry it on to completion!”
The court’s ruling states that California cannot issue or enforce any COVID-19 church capacity restrictions unless COVID-19 case numbers rise rapidly.
Any new regulation imposed on churches must be “identical to, or at least as favorable as, the precautions imposed on other similar gatherings of similar risk,” the ruling said.
All prohibitions on singing, chanting, or worship gatherings must be equivalent to restrictions on other live events, the ruling added.
“Gov. Gavin Newsom has now been permanently quarantined and may not violate the First Amendment rights of churches and places of worship again,” quipped Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver.
When California governor Gavin Newsom’s order that churches stop worshipping together in person, Harvest Rock’s senior pastors Ché and Sue Ahn refused to close their church. For doing so, they received a letter from Pasadena’s criminal prosecutor threating church staff and attendees with daily criminal charges each up to one year in prison, and daily fines of $1,000.
The couple kept the church open and filed legal challenges to California’s courts in July of 2020.
Other churches have also refused to obey California’s COVID-19 restrictions on churches, including John McArthur’s Grace Community Church. In addition to meeting without social distancing and masks, the church also reportedly did not report an outbreak of COVID-19 to authorities, which was fatal for some church members.
Previously, the Ninth Circuit Court had ruled against Harvest Rock’s lawsuit. The court argued that restrictions on businesses and churches were the same.
However, the Supreme Court granted Harvest Rock injunctive relief after deciding a similar court case in New York in favor of religious groups.
In April, California changed its regulations on churches from “mandatory” to “strongly recommended.”
Jackson Elliott is a Christian journalist trained at Northwestern University. He has worked at The Daily Signal, The Inlander, and The Christian Post, covering topics ranging from D.C. politics to prison ministry. His interests include the Bible, philosophy, theology, Russian literature, and Irish music.