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Chula Vista Church Renews Challenge To State’s COVID-19 Restrictions

South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, May 20, 2020.

Photo by Alexander Nguyen

Above: South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, May 20, 2020.

A Chula Vista church that challenged California's COVID-19 restrictions in a legal fight that went before the U.S. Supreme Court has filed an amended complaint in its bid to see churches reopened during the pandemic.

South Bay United Pentecostal Church and its pastor, Arthur Hodges III, filed the new complaint last week in San Diego federal court, nearly two months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to uphold COVID-19 restrictions placed on religious gatherings by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

At the time, the church accused the state of arbitrarily allowing certain sectors considered essential to stay open, while discriminating against religious institutions, a move they claimed "intentionally denigrated California churches and pastors and people of faith by relegating them to third-class citizenship."

California imposed restrictions this month on a number of indoor activities due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, and the church is seeking an injunction that will allow it to open under the same standards as other sectors when those businesses are allowed to reopen.

RELATED: Supreme Court Rejects Church’s Challenge To California’s Coronavirus Rules

This time, the church renews its objections while also taking aim at alleged favoritism toward the police protests that began in late May following the Memorial Day Minneapolis death of George Floyd.

"When the public sentiment began to favor race-based political protest instead of compliance with the pandemic restrictions, public officials were all too eager to grant a de facto exception for those favored protestors," the complaint states. "This favoritism has caused amazing harm in the form of a general loss of confidence by the American people in the merits of the pandemic restrictions at all."

The church again says that a number of secular industries were allowed to reopen, while alleging they may have presented more of an infection risk than places of worship.

It also takes issue with restrictions Newsom placed on churches when they were allowed to reopen, including attendance caps of 100 people or 25% occupancy, and prohibitions against singing indoors. The injunction South Bay United seeks would also prevent California from banning singing or chanting during worship services, or issuing any other "allegedly neutral ban ... that clearly targets worship."

As in its earlier filings, the church states that indoor services are needed for proper worship and that teleconferenced or outdoor services are "inadequate substitutes."

In the amended complaint, the church states its preference that "the entire congregation meet at once" and that placing capacity restrictions on services "would be like holding a family reunion in three sessions."

In its allegations of discriminatory practices, the church alleges "ordering that `worshippers may not gather' is not different than -- and equally repugnant as — ordering that 'African-Americans may not gather' or 'Chinese may not gather,"' in addition to comparing the restrictions on worship to "providing specific (mandatory) guidance for heterosexuals, homosexuals and other sexual minorities."

The complaint also alleges the state's shutdown orders are too restrictive in the face of a "generally non-lethal disease."

South Bay United's attorneys allege that death rates from COVID-19 are declining and that California's death rate "has largely stabilized."

While California recently overtook New York as the state with the highest number of COVID-19 cases nationwide and ranks fourth in total deaths, the church states California has the 30th-highest death rate in the nation, while also alleging that death rates in San Diego County have been low.

"In a society hostile to religion, banning worship might be justified to prevent deaths, but not common, flu-like symptoms," the complaint states.

Both a San Diego federal judge and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the church's challenges, leading to the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection in late May in a 5-4 decision.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote in an opinion denying the request that "Although California's guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time. And the order exempts or treats more leniently only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods."

The majority opinion noted: "The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement. Our Constitution principally entrusts `[t]he safety and the health of the people' to the politically accountable officials of the states to guard and protect."

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote the dissenting opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch.

"I would grant the church's requested temporary injunction because California's latest safety guidelines discriminate against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses. Such discrimination violates the First Amendment," according to the opinion, which also noted that "comparable secular businesses" were not subject to occupancy caps.

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