A Lodi church that defied stay-at-home orders earlier this month before being locked out of the building it rented has sued Gov. Gavin Newsom, claiming his efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus are an abuse of authority.
Escondido attorney Dean Broyles filed a federal lawsuit in Sacramento this week on behalf of Cross Culture Christian Center.
Broyles, president of the National Center for Law and Policy, has been representing the church since it was first told by Lodi Police Department officers on March 25 that it could not hold its services in public, as ordered in the stay-at-home mandates issued by both Newsom and San Joaquin Public Health Services.
In the 51-page lawsuit, Broyles argued that the “state does not have the authority to disregard well-established religious tenets relating to gatherings and method of worship.”
The church leases its location at 760 S. Ham Lane from the Bethel Open Bible Church, which shut its doors and ceased all public gatherings on March 15.
Cross Culture Christian Center continued to meet for in-person services on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings. After the March 25 visit from Lodi police, the church retained Broyles, who issued a cease and desist letter against the department and City of Lodi.
On April 3, Bethel Open Bible Church changed the locks on its doors and county public health posted an order on the door effectively closing the building.
The church still attempted to gather for Palm Sunday services at the building, only to be met by Lodi officers who asked members to leave the premises and adhere to the stay-at-home order.
In his suit, Broyles said the county order closing the building “specifically targeted the church.” He also argued that “Civil rights are not suspended by a virus,” and that “fundamental and unalienable rights are, by their very nature, ‘essential.’”
Broyles said the State of California has, “in a sweeping abuse of its power, criminalized all religious assembly and communal religious worship while allowing citizens to gather at a liquor store, pot-dispensary, Planned Parenthood, Walmart, CVS, Costco, Home Depot, and many other locations which are deemed ’essential.’”
Broyles did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Earlier this month, Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the City of Lodi explaining that it is not only permissible for officials to protect public health by including houses of worship and religious services in temporary bans of in-person gatherings, but it would be unconstitutional to exempt religious gatherings from the orders.
Americans United describes itself as a national, nonsectarian public-interest organization committed to preserving the constitutional principles of religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
Rachel Laser, chief executive officer and president, said in an email to the News-Sentinel that the organization recognizes people find solace in attending services, but when health experts and public officials determine that large gatherings must be canceled for safety, that must apply to secular and religious gatherings equally.
“The Constitution not only permits it, but demands it,” she said. “Such restrictions do not violate religious freedom. They ensure religious freedom is not misused in ways that risk people's lives. We applaud the faith communities that are finding creative ways to worship together online or by broadcast, and we hope that people will find comfort by participating in these virtual services.”
Broyles’ lawsuit comes as a federal judge in another case rejected similar arguments by three Southern California churches.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal denied a request for a temporary restraining order against Newsom filed by Shield of Faith Family Church of Fontana, Word of Life Ministries International of Riverside, and Church Unlimited of Indio.
In his ruling, Bernal rejected the argument that Newsom’s stay-at-home orders violated First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, according to the Associated Press.
“During the state of emergency the executive powers are in effect, in that they are empowered to provide for emergency remedies which may infringe on fundamental constitutional rights,” Bernal said, according to the AP.