A federal appeals court in the US state of California has upheld a ban on indoor worship gatherings. In a 2-1 ruling, the majority of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel agreed that California’s health restrictions did not impede on religious expression.
The ruling stated that the same restrictions are applied "to worship services as they do to other indoor congregate events, such as lectures and movie theaters" and that congregate activities are completely prohibited in every county, such as attending concerts and spectating sporting events."
Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena had requested for an emergency motion to block California governor Gavin Newsom’s restrictions but were denied by judges Johnnie B. Rawlinson Morgan Christen, who are appointees of Presidents Clinton and Obama respectively.
Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, a President Reagan appointee, dissented in the ruling, saying that it was constitutionally unfair that churches must remain closed while indoor malls, nail salons, meatpacking plants and laundromats are free to open.
Mat Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a law firm specialising in cases related to religious freedom, said he was encouraged by O'Scannlain's dissent and hopeful for the outcome of their next appeal.
“We look forward to the next round at the Court of Appeals on the full merits of our request to block the 1st Amendment violations,” Staver said. “While the virus does not discriminate between nonreligious and religious gatherings, Gov. Newsom does.”
California's ban on indoor worship services has hit the headlines in recent weeks after popular pastor John MacArthur refused to stop hosting in-person meetings at his Sun Valley church. A hearing addressing MacArthur's civil contempt has been pushed back to November, with county officials saying that the court cannot “adjudicate this issue now because of court rules prohibiting people from being present in the courtroom to combat the spread of the virus.”
Officials deny that the delay means MacArthur is off the hook, adding that Grace Community Church “has not been exonerated for its violations.”
MacArthur's lawyer, Thomas More Society Special Counsel Charles LiMandri, said the ruling "prevents Los Angeles County’s attempted rush to judgement in its continued prosecution of Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church for courage".
In a statement following the ruling, MacArthur declared: “We are holding church. The Lord Jesus requires us to meet together and we will continue to do that because we are commanded to and because it is our right.”
MacArthur has previously stated that he does not fear the prospect of facing jail time for the violations. "If they want to tuck me into jail, I'm open for a jail ministry," he told Fox News last month. "I've done a lot of other ministries and haven't had the opportunity to do that one, so, bring it on."