A group of Southern California pastors is suing California Gov. Gavin Newsom and several other officials in federal court over health directives that have prevented worshipers from attending church services due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The suit was filed Monday in the US District Court for the Central District of California by the Dhillon Law Group, which is led by Harmeet Dhillion -- a Republican Party official -- on behalf of four plaintiffs, three of whom are pastors.
The plaintiffs include:
- Dean Moffatt, a pastor at an Indio church who alleges he was fined $1,000 for holding a church service on Palm Sunday
- Brenda Wood, a pastor at a Riverside church
- Patrick Scales, a pastor at a Fontana church
- Wendy Gish, a member of Scales’ church
The group argues in the suit that Newsom and other state officials “in a gross abuse of their power, have seized the coronavirus pandemic to expand their authority by unprecedented lengths, depriving plaintiffs and all other residents of California of fundamental rights protected by the US and California Constitutions, including freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, and due process and equal protection under the law.”
Newsom’s office did not immediately return a CNN request for comment.
The church leaders in the lawsuit are also suing state Attorney General Xavier Becerra and several Riverside and San Bernardino county officials, including the sheriffs and health officers.
Orders ignored: On March 19, Newsom issued the first statewide stay-home order in the US, urging California’s nearly 40 million residents to remain home to reduce the spread of the virus, and closing all non-essential businesses. Despite the orders, some congregations have continued to meet, including in Sacramento County, where 71 people connected to a single church were later infected with the coronavirus in one of the largest outbreak clusters in the country.
Electronic worship: The suit comes after Dhillon sent a letter last week to San Bernardino County officials demanding it loosen restrictions around church gatherings following its order that all religious ceremonies be held electronically. Violating the order was punishable by a $1,000 fine or up to 90 days imprisonment. But after the letter, the county issued a “clarification” allowing for in-person church services “if they choose to do so and make every effort to prevent contact between congregants.”
Praying safely: On Friday, Newsom also addressed church gatherings ahead of Easter, saying those planning to worship could continue to do so in a safe manner. “As you pray, move your feet at least six feet apart from someone else,” he said. “Practice your faith, but so in a way that allows you to keep yourself healthy, keep others healthy.”