BREAKING: Three California churches sue Newsom over coronavirus stay-at-home order

Per NBC News, three Southern California churches have sued the governor and local officials over orders that ban religious gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order March 19 to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. The order says residents should stay home, except for essential needs or jobs. It requires indoor shopping malls and nonessential retail establishments to close.

But the pastors of three churches in Riverside and San Bernardino counties filed a federal lawsuit Monday in the Central District of California saying religious services should be deemed essential because they are important for the “spiritual health of the congregation.”

One pastor, Patrick Scales, said he believes he can have in-person services at his Shield of Faith Family Church in Fontana while also keeping congregants safe.

He said that worshippers can be seated with family units 6 feet apart and that everyone would wear masks when inside.

“Scales believes he can have in-person church services while making every effort to prevent contact between congregants by adhering to social distancing guidance, just as grocery stores, laundromats, and marijuana dispensaries are implementing to keep their customers safe,” the lawsuit states.

Scales said that church service is especially important now during the pandemic and that he wants to open his doors “to help deal with the spiritual and physical needs of its congregants.”

Wendy Gish, a member of Shield of Faith Family Church, said in the lawsuit that she would attend services if it were allowed.

Brenda Wood, senior pastor at Word of Life Ministries International in Riverside, held a drive-thru church service on Easter. Wood said worshippers followed social distancing guidelines by wearing masks and remaining in their cars, parked 6 feet apart.

She preached using a portable amplification system, according to the lawsuit. Wood said she would like to continue drive-up services every Sunday.

Another pastor, James Dean Moffatt of Church Unlimited in Indio, said that immediately after he learned about the virus he had his church cleaned and disinfected. He also provided sanitizing materials to everyone who entered the building and encouraged those who felt sick to stay home.

Moffatt held a service in his church on April 5 to mark Palm Sunday and was fined $1,000 for violating the state’s order. The suit states that Moffatt “believes that scripture commands him as a pastor to lay hands on people and pray for them” but that he cannot do that if he is not allowed to hold in-person worship services.

Fox News reports the Center for American Liberty, a conservative non-profit, filed the lawsuit in the federal court for the Central District of California on behalf of three pastors and one parishioner in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, east of Los Angeles. Attorney General Xavier Becerra and officials of San Bernardino and Riverside counties are also named as defendants.

Newsom, a Democrat, and others are accused of “criminalizing church attendance” under overly broad state and local stay-at-home orders instead of allowing houses of worship to remain open if they practice safe social distancing in the same manner as grocery stores and other outlets considered essential services.

“The state and localities have granted sweeping exceptions to the shutdown orders for favored businesses and professions, while specifically targeting people of faith and decreeing to religious institutions that it is ‘good enough’ that they be allowed to offer streaming video services,” said Harmeet K. Dhillon, chief executive of the Center for American Liberty, according to the Hill.

“The state does not get to dictate the method of worship to the faithful,” her statement continued. “If a Californian is able to go to Costco or the local marijuana shop or liquor store and buy goods in a responsible, socially distanced manner, then he or she must be allowed to practice their faith using the same precautions.”

The center was founded in 2019 by Dhillon, who is on the Republican National Committee that helps steer the party’s platform and election strategy.

One plaintiff, James Moffatt, senior pastor at Church Unlimited in Indio, was fined $1,000 for violating Riverside County’s order by holding a Palm Sunday service, according to the lawsuit.

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

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

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