After a year of litigation, the state of California is ordered to back down and pay the attorney fees of a church that had to defend its civil right to meet.
On May 17, U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal entered an order approving a settlement between the State of California and Harvest Rock Church. Included in the settlement is a state-wide injunction against COVID restrictions on churches and places of worship. California has agreed to stop issuing or enforcing regulations issued in connection with COVID-19 that impose any capacity or numerical restrictions on religious worship services that are more severe than restrictions imposed on other similar gatherings of similar risk.
This settlement was nearly inevitable following U.S. Supreme Court decisions in several cases, including Tandon v. Newsom, South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, Harvest Rock Church, Inc. v. Newsom, and Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, that overturned restrictions that treated churches differently than other similarly situated entities
The order further blocked the state from enforcing any restrictions on the religious exercise of singing and chanting during religious services, other than guidelines generally issued for performances or similar activities.
From now on, the state can make recommendations but must make it clear that they are voluntary and not enforceable.
Finally, the court ordered the state to pay Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, California, $1.35 million for the “reasonable attorney’s fees and costs necessarily incurred in this case.” (For those interested, the statutory authority for the fees was the declaration that the Plaintiffs were the prevailing party under 42 U.S.C. section 1988 “Proceedings in vindication of civil rights.”)
This is a win for religious liberty and the idea that the state could block churches from opening simply because they were houses of worship is clearly unconstitutional. Churches are essential as a matter of law.
Unfortunately, on the other end of the United States, a church in Maine has filed a motion with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to block Maine from enforcing capacity restrictions. According to the petition, “Maine imposes the most severe restrictions in the country on churches and places of worship.” Calvary Chapel of Bangor, Maine is represented by Liberty Counsel, the same legal group that successfully represented Harvest Rock Church in the California case.