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Appeals Court Rejects Chula Vista Church's Challenge To Occupancy Limits

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

An appeals court rejected a Chula Vista church's request on Friday to block California's occupancy limits on indoor worship ahead of Easter Sunday.

The order from a three-justice panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the latest legal challenge brought by South Bay United Pentecostal Church.

Earlier this week, the church unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining order to prohibit the state from enforcing its 25% occupancy limit. U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant declined to grant an order in the church's favor, though she did set an evidentiary hearing in the matter for mid-May, during which state attorneys will be required to present evidence regarding how the occupancy limits were reached.

Given the hearing's scheduling long after Easter, the church filed an urgent petition to temporarily block the state's restrictions and allow South Bay to welcome congregants in excess of 25% capacity.

The appeals court panel wrote that Bashant did not err in declining to grant an order.

"The district court was unable to make findings on an adequate record and thus exercised its discretion to continue the hearing to develop the record for meaningful review," the opinion reads. "This was not an abuse of discretion, notwithstanding the unfortunate timing."

South Bay United, which has repeatedly challenged state and county pandemic restrictions, alleged in its latest filing that California's pandemic restrictions on places of worship have been far harsher than its limits on secular industries, noting that as San Diego County moved into the red tier last month, nonessential retail stores were granted the ability to operate at 50% capacity.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the church's challenge to attendance limits last year, it was granted a legal victory by the Supreme Court in February when the high court ruled California could not enforce a ban on indoor services. The ruling did, however, leave in place a 25% capacity restriction and a prohibition on singing and chanting.