Culture

Some People Just Don’t Get That the First Amendment Guarantees Freedom of Religious Practice and Assembly

Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool

And now for some good news! Los Angeles County public health officials have ceased their unconstitutional oppression of religious assemblies like that of Pastor John MacArthur and the congregation of Grace Community Church.

In an announcement posted Saturday, officials declared that:

The Los Angeles County Health Officer Order will be modified today to align with recent Supreme Court rulings for places of worship. Places of worship are permitted to offer faith-based services both indoors and outdoors with mandatory physical distancing and face coverings over both the nose and mouth that must be worn at all times while on site.

Places of worship must also assure that attendance does not exceed the number of people who can be accommodated while maintaining a physical distance of six feet between separate households.

Public Health strongly recommends that places of worship continue to hold services outdoors, with physical distancing and the use of face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to congregants and to the entire community.

Because Los Angeles County is experiencing an unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, every effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to congregants and to the entire community is critical.

One could argue that these officials still don’t understand that congregant rights as individuals and corporate bodies to gather for worship are protected by the First Amendment, and are not something they are merely “permitted” to do by government.

But be that as it may, the Los Angeles County commissars are still way ahead of Federal District Court Judge Jesus Bernal, who recently defied a direct order from the Supreme Court.

Earlier this week, Bernal, for the second time, denied a motion for a temporary restraining order sought by Harvest Rock Church, Inc. and Harvest Rock International Ministries against California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s oppressive regulations banning virtually all outdoor and indoor worship gatherings.

Bernal’s decision flatly contradicted the Supreme Court’s order to the Ninth Circuit of Appeals that it remand the Harvest Rock case to Bernal for his reconsideration of his original denial in light of the high court’s decision in Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York.

In Catholic Diocese, the Supreme Court struck down New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ban on worship gatherings by Catholic and Jewish congregations in Brooklyn.

Justice Neil Gorsuch said in Catholic Diocese that Cuomo’s orders were exactly the kind of official anti-religious discrimination banned by the First Amendment. Liberty Counsel, which represents Harvest Rock, described Catholic Diocese as “a clear roadmap” for lower courts to follow in considering orders like those issued by Cuomo and Newsom.

In a December 23 emergency request to the Ninth Circuit, Harvest Rock’s attorneys from Liberty Counsel pointed out that “the district court – yet again – denied Plaintiffs-Appellants’ requests for emergency relief in total contradiction to the binding precedent of this Court and Catholic Diocese.”

Liberty Counsel is a law firm that specializes in religious freedom litigation across the nation.

The attorneys also noted that Bernal was defying the Ninth Circuit’s recent Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak and Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain v. Sisolak, both of which, as mandated by Catholic Diocese, required “the application of strict scrutiny to restrictions on religious worship services when compared to similar nonreligious indoor activities as is the case with Governor Newsom’s orders.”

The constitutional harms in these kinds of cases are very real. Harvest Rock congregants are suffering because of Bernal’s obstinance. In the emergency appeal, the attorneys informed the Ninth Circuit that:

With each day that passes, which has now been ongoing for 156 days, Appellants are suffering immediate and irreparable injury to their cherished First Amendment liberties, which is unquestionably irreparable harm…

Appellants have been subject to complete prohibitions and severe restrictions for 10 months, have been forced to choose between jail and attending Church of the Holy Day of Easter, the Day of Pentecost, and are now threatened with missing another Holy Season of Christmas due to the district court’s refusal to follow the clear dictates of binding precedent.

Appellants are currently prohibited from hosting any in-person worship services, including in-home Bible studies and fellowship with anyone who does not live at the home, regardless of social distancing, enhanced sanitizing, or other precautionary measures that the governor permits other entities to operate under without restriction.

Liberty Counsel Chairman and Founder Mat Staver said in a statement issued Wednesday that “The U.S. Supreme Court issued a constitutional roadmap for houses of worship that should lead courts to find Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive edicts violate the First Amendment.”

That means, according to Staver, that “the High Court has ruled and therefore ALL lower courts must obey that decision to allow houses of worship their First Amendment freedom. The temporary loss before the District Court will become a more important victory for all houses of worship.”

Justice Gorsuch might want to have a “Come to Jesus” conversation with Judge Bernal regarding the latter’s obligation to follow the supreme law of the land.

Mark Tapscott is founder and editor of HillFaith, the voice of an apologetics ministry sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with congressional aides.