The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected late Thursday a San Diego-area church’s request to lift a state ban on indoor worship for Christmas, all but extinguishing the last hope of California churches hours before the Friday celebration.
Charles LiMandri, special counsel for the Thomas More Society, said he would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene after a three-judge panel denied the emergency motion to lift temporarily California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“We are extremely disappointed that the Ninth Circuit has yanked the joy of Christmas away from South Bay United Pentecostal Church and its congregants,” Mr. LiMandri said in a statement.
Another three-judge panel on Wednesday effectively nixed Christmas Day services for a different California church, Harvest Rock Church, by scheduling a hearing on the emergency motion for Dec. 28.
Attorneys for the churches had pointed out that the Supreme Court earlier this month vacated orders against the California churches after ruling in favor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn in its lawsuit against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s public health restrictions.
“By refusing to allow South Bay to participate in the worldwide celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the court is continuing to perpetuate the violations of religious liberty that Governor Newsom has been executing for nine months under the guise of COVID-19 prevention,” Mr. LiMandri said.
Mr. Newsom’s latest public health order covers about 99% of the state population, although Los Angeles County removed last week its ban on indoor worship, provided that congregants adhere to social-distancing and mask protocols.
Harvest Rock Church and Harvest Ministry International plan to hold indoor services in defiance of the state public-health order, said Liberty Counsel founder and president Mat Staver.
Mr. Staver said a ruling in favor of removing the restrictions for South Bay or Harvest Rock would have presumably applied to all California churches.
In the Harvest Rock case, 9th Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain chastised the court for failing to lift the pandemic restrictions in time for Christmas.
“Even if we need more time to consider the pending motion in full, we should have granted the church at least the temporary relief it needs to ensure that its members can exercise freely the fundamental right to practice their Christian religion on one of the most sacred Christian days of the year,” said Judge O’Scannlain in the Wednesday ruling.
In the South Bay case, the panel set a Dec. 31 deadline for opening briefs, with an answering brief due Jan. 7 and an optional reply due Jan. 11.
The state on Thursday surpassed 2 million cases of COVID-19. Statewide ICU capacity has dropped to 1.1% as the number of ICU patients with COVID-19 doubled in the last three weeks, and hospitalizations rose 61%.
“Hospitals are full, ICU beds are few, people are dying,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, state secretary for Health and Human Services, in a Thursday statement. “The simplest thing we can do, but also the most significant, is to stay home. We are the first line of defense against the virus and we must act now.”
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