Church, rabbi sue Calif. and local officials over COVID-19 church closures

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) – A Chula Vista church, its senior pastor and a Carmel Valley rabbi sued Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state and local officials Friday for not including churches and other places of worship among the state’s Stage 2 sectors cleared for reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

South Bay United Pentecostal Church, the church’s senior pastor Bishop Arthur Hodges III and Rabbi Mendel Polichenco of Chabad of Carmel Valley take issue with places of worship being slotted as a Stage 3 sector within the state’s reopening plan, which would also include “salons, tattoo parlors, gyms, bars and movie theaters,” according to the lawsuit filed in San Diego federal court.

“This new regime, where manufacturing, schools, offices and childcare facilities can reopen — but places of worship cannot — is mindboggling,” the complaint states, referring to industries considered for reopening during the latter part of Stage 2. “The churches and pastors of California are no less `essential’ than its retail, schools and offices to the health and well- being of its residents.”

The lawsuit alleges state and local elected officials have “intentionally denigrated California churches and pastors and people of faith by relegating them to third-class citizenship.”

The suit not only challenges Newsom’s stay-at-home order, but also public health orders issued by the county and city of San Diego, as unconstitutional.

The suit states that many religious activities require in-person services, but are prohibited by the state’s order.

“Zoom meetings and other teleconferencing applications are inadequate substitutes” for South Bay Pentecostal, while for Chabad of Carmel Valley, such options are “insufficient for amassing the required quorum to commence a Shabbat or Shacharit service because the rabbinical mitzvahs require that at least 10 men be physically present in the same space.”

Similar rationales were part of a Campo church’s lawsuit against San Diego County that sought to open its doors for Easter Sunday services. U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant denied the request from Abiding Place Ministries, though the county amended its public health order after the fact to allow drive-in services, which the church had sought as an alternative.

Both Hodges and Polichenco hold that their places of worship are large enough to accommodate worshippers while maintaining proper social distancing, and state that masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment can be integrated into their services. They also state that any congregants who are sick will be required to stay home.

“To be blunt, California’s present regime, which mandates that Californians who need the spirit of almighty God settle for the lesser spirits dispensed out of California’s liquor stores, is demeaning and denigrating to all persons of faith,” the suit states.

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