Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

“Letting God fight this battle”

Religious Liberty | One California church moves its worship services outside while others soldier on indoors
by Steve West
Posted 9/22/20, 04:01 pm

After holding indoor services since late August, members of North Valley Baptist Church in Santa Clara, Calif., gathered in the parking lot to worship from their cars the past two Sundays. Pastor Jack Trieber told congregants that after prayer, fasting, and counsel, he decided not to resist the county’s lawsuit over the Bay Area church’s violations of COVID-19 restrictions. The church had racked up fines of more than $100,000 by the time it and Santa Clara County agreed to drop their lawsuits late Friday.

“I have confidence that [county officials] are going to try their best … to help to get churches open at the right time,” Trieber told congregants, who honked car horns in approval. “Your job and my job is to keep letting God fight this battle.”

But other California churches have taken a different stance. Grace Community Church in Sun Valley near Los Angeles met indoors again on Sunday for the second time after a California Superior Court judge on Sept. 10 ordered it to stop and adhere to state and Los Angeles County restrictions on gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic. The church filed an appeal on Sept. 14. A judge will hear arguments at the end of the month over whether to hold Grace Community in contempt, which could result in fines or other sanctions.

Harvest Rock Church in nearby Pasadena also continues to meet inside though a federal judge allowed Los Angeles County to enforce its health order earlier this month. A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday heard the church’s request for a pause on enforcement while it appeals, but the court did not immediately rule. Church attorneys argued the coronavirus orders unfairly allow nonreligious gatherings while banning similar religious activities in houses of worship.

While most states have relaxed or abandoned restrictions on churches, California remains one of six that prohibit or limit gatherings for worship, according to a survey by Becket. Most California counties bar all corporate indoor worship—even in private residences.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr last Thursday, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., condemned state officials who violate the free exercise rights of religious Americans. Hawley urged Barr to “immediately bring lawsuits in federal court to uphold the constitutional right to free exercise and the rights of houses of worship being unjustly shuttered.”

One bright spot: Los Angeles County officials on Thursday told First Liberty Institute attorneys that they would not dispatch sheriff’s deputies to the homes of Jewish families gathered for religious meals during the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in late September.

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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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  • psubrent
    Posted: Tue, 09/22/2020 06:33 pm

    Sorry to be "that guy," but Yom Kippur is a fast day so there would be no eating of meals (unless you're talking pre and post-fast meals).  Sukkot is the bigger issue coming up in early October.

    Posted: Wed, 09/23/2020 09:44 pm

    Curious. I haven't seen any mention of covid cases in these large churches that are meeting indoors. Any numbers?