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Group of pastors sue California officials for ‘criminalizing’ church attendance

A group of pastors filed a lawsuit Monday against California officials including Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), for “criminalizing” church attendance with stay-at-home orders meant to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

The Center for Religious Liberty, in partnership with the Dhillon Law Group, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on behalf of three pastors and one churchgoer.

One of the pastors is James Moffat, who was fined $1,000 for holding a Palm Sunday service in Riverside County.

Harmeet K. Dhillon, CEO of the Center for American Liberty, said in a press release that the stay-at-home orders are “criminalizing individual participation” in houses of worship and violating the First Amendment by not allowing religious groups to meet in person.

“The state and localities have granted sweeping exceptions to the shutdown orders for favored businesses and professions, while specifically targeting people of faith and decreeing to religious institutions that it is ‘good enough’ that they be allowed to offer streaming video services,” Dhillon said. “The state does not get to dictate the method of worship to the faithful.”

“If a Californian is able to go to Costco or the local marijuana shop or liquor store and buy goods in a responsible, socially distanced manner, then he or she must be allowed to practice their faith using the same precautions,” he continued.

The Center for American Liberty’s legal action comes after it sent a warning to San Bernardino County saying it would file a suit if the government didn’t remove the ban on in-person services. The county ended up allowing Easter services if congregations “make every effort to prevent contact between congregants,” The Sacramento Bee reported on Monday.

The lawsuit also condemns San Bernardino and Riverside counties for only allowing limited accommodations for worship meetings only on Easter.

Dhillon pointed out in his statement that not all worshipers and places of worship have access to technology that allows them to stream services.

The lawsuit also names California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, as well as several county officials.

Newsom issued a stay-at-home order on March 19, requiring residents do not leave their homes except for essential reasons. The governor’s office did not immediately return a request to comment.

The federal government’s social distancing guidelines including not meeting in groups any larger than 10.

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