South Bay Pentecostal Church and its pastor, Bishop Art Hodges III, filed a civil rights lawsuit on May 11 in San Diego federal court, challenging Governor Gavin Newsom’s series of stay-at-home orders that have banned religious services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To stem the spread of the coronavirus, Newsom on March 19 signed an executive order mandating the state’s 40 million residents to remain in their homes unless they were classified as essential workers. The stay-at-home order prohibits places of worship from holding worship services and religious ceremonies.

The Governor continues to shutter synagogues and churches with no end in sight. After weeks of government suppression of their religious freedoms, our clients have said enough is enough. The First Amendment still protects their right to freely exercise their faith, even during a pandemic.

Charles LiMandri, Chief Litigation Counsel, FCDF

On Friday, May 8, the Governor announced new coronavirus safeguards and protocols for retail stores and workplaces eligible to reopen today and in the weeks ahead. Under the plan, in-restaurant dining, office buildings, and shopping malls will be allowed to reopen. But the plan continues to shutter religious establishments with no timetable for reopening.

The lawsuit alleges that the Governor’s stay-at-home orders and reopening plan violate the plaintiffs’ rights to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment and their equal protection and due process rights. The lawsuit also challenges related orders issued by the County of San Diego that forbid in-person religious services and communal worship. Violating the orders would subject the plaintiffs to fines and criminal punishment.

Bishop Arthur Hodges III is Senior Pastor of South Bay Pentecostal Church, a diverse Christian community in Chula Vista. Every Sunday, the church holds three to five worship services, where congregants “come together with one accord” to pray and worship. Along with worship services, the church ministers to the faithful by performing baptisms, funerals, weddings, and other religious ceremonies.

According to the complaint:

Plaintiffs do not seek to discredit or discard the government’s unquestionable interest in doing that task for which it was instituted—protecting the citizenry. But, as is often true in times of crisis and fear, Plaintiffs respectfully submit that to uphold its sworn duties, California has—perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not—stepped over a line the U.S. and California Constitutions do not permit. Plaintiffs thus bring this action to ensure that this Court safeguard the cherished liberties for which millions have fought, bled, and died.

Complaint

The case, South Bay United Pentecostal Church, et al. v. Gavin Newsom, et al., Case No. 3:20-cv-00865-AJB-MDD, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. Federal Judge Anthony J. Battaglia is presiding over the case.

The Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund is funding the legal costs associated with the suit. Representing the plaintiffs are the Law Offices of LiMandri & Jonna LLP, Thomas More Society, and the Dhillon Law Group.

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