Indoor service again denied for South Bay church

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CHULA VISTA, Calif. – A San Diego-based federal judge has denied South Bay United Pentecostal Church’s bid to lift the ban on indoor worship.

U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant acknowledged her role in drawing a “difficult balance between religious liberty and public health.” She wrote in a 25-page ruling that the court doesn’t doubt that not being able to congregate indoors imposes a burden on the plaintiff’s religion.

Bashant also noted the court recognizes the burden on the church and its pastor Arthur Hodges III is temporary as the process of widespread COVID-19 vaccine distribution is ongoing.

“This is a temporary setback,” Hodges said Tuesday. “The good news is we will soon have a ruling from a higher court with a much broader impact.”

According to Hodges, the church’s legal team filed an emergency appeal with the Ninth Circuit in hopes of drawing a favorable ruling in time for Christmas Eve on Thursday.

If that request is denied, Hodges said the church immediately will look to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hodges has spent much of the year pushing back against COVID-19 restrictions that have hampered churches and their ability to operate for indoor service. In May, the church argued before the Supreme Court in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom that they should be allowed to hold in-person services despite a state order which forbids it. They lost in a 5-4 decision.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court panel ordered a lower court to revisit its ruling against a the church’s request to challenge the state’s COVID-19-related restrictions on indoor worship services.

The panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Bashant’s previous Oct. 15 order denying South Bay United Pentecostal Church’s request for a preliminary injunction and ordered further consideration of its request.

“We’re certain this is going to be overturned and it will be in the favor of churches,” he said. “It’s another delay you might say, or another obstacle.”

Hodges said some of the churches he oversees in San Diego will have indoor services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day regardless of the outcome.

“What a great Christmas gift to churches, to people of faith to be able to actually go to their house of worship,” he said. “That would be wonderful.”

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