THE BIG TALK
An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
Pastor James Moffatt doesn’t pretend he has faced lions and gladiators on the bloody sands of Rome like early Christians, but he has had an unwelcome whiff of what it is like to stand up for his faith against the all-powerful state.
“I’m not a martyr or anything,” he said. “But to stand alone up there when everybody seems to be going against you, it isn’t easy.”
Mr. Moffatt, 49, is senior pastor of Church Unlimited, a Pentecostal congregation in Indio, California, who refused to stop conducting church services as required by the state’s strict COVID-19 shutdown rules.
His act of defiance puts him at the center of one of the sharpest church versus state divides in recent American history. Arrayed against him and a handful of other churches were Gov. Gavin Newsom, a disciple of government lockdowns for COVID-19, and other state and Riverside County officials.
The battle over religious freedom eventually took Mr. Moffatt to the Supreme Court, where he and other church leaders prevailed. That outcome, however, was in grave doubt when he first decided to take a stand.
“The orders began to trickle down through government, and we knew we had a decision to make,” Mr. Moffatt said. “As for what is ‘essential,’ obviously we think and believe churches are essential. This is something imperative to people of faith. We decided to stay open.”
It came down to a Caesar-or-God moment for the Army veteran, and Mr. Moffatt concluded that his beliefs bound him to gather to talk about Scripture.
“It was all such a whirlwind, if you remember,” he said. “There was all this information and misinformation out about the virus, and no one knew where we were at with this thing. Are people going to be dying in the streets? That was the way they painted it in the beginning.”
The showdown grew heated in the days before Easter 2020.
Neither Mr. Moffatt nor the Church Unlimited congregation of about 100 people considered canceling on the holiest day of the Christian calendar. Even if that meant holding services in the baking heat of the church parking lot, where Church Unlimited moved while trying to figure out some accommodation with orders to shut down. They would be together on Easter Sunday.
“Most of the people were out there in chairs, but I’m telling you, it was hot,” he said of outdoor services in Indio, just east of Palm Springs.
Mr. Moffatt was uncertain what might happen. Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco let it be known that his deputies were not going to spend weekends arresting religious residents. Mr. Moffatt had other sources in law enforcement, given he spent 16 years as a corrections officer, and they told him quietly that they would not be simpatico with orders to shutter churches, temples and the like.
“I’ve got a pretty good relationship with the cops, actually,” he said, noting that a local dispatcher and a retired sheriff’s deputy are among worshippers at Church Unlimited.
Still, they also had jobs to do, as a Riverside County attorney informed Mr. Moffatt in a phone call shortly before Easter. The conversation was friendly until Mr. Moffatt made it clear that Easter services would be held.
“We’re not rebellious at all,” Mr. Moffatt said of himself and his wife, Cheryl. The couple, married for 25 years and with two grown children, met while serving in the Army at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Cheryl Moffatt is a public employee in Riverside County.
Life had been idyllic in many ways for the Moffatts, and they weren’t looking for a fight. But a fight was what they got.
County officials threatened to shut down the church, to slap a restraining order on the pastor and to hit him with $1,000 a day in fines and a possible jail sentence if he kept Church Unlimited open.
“I’d have known the jail pretty well if they sent me there,” he said. “After all, I was a member of the design team of it when it was built.”
As he was dragged before a judge in a virtual court appearance on April 9, 2020, Mr. Moffatt said, his faith compelled him to preach. The judge refused a request for a continuance for Mr. Moffatt to find an attorney. Although the judge brushed aside the county’s pleas to slap a restraining order on Mr. Moffatt, he did agree to post paper signs on the church door saying it should be closed.
A considerable portion of Californians and social media dwellers opposed Mr. Moffatt and the church, he said.
“They destroyed us on the church’s Facebook page,” he said. “The hate mail we got was crazy. I wouldn’t even answer the phone anymore. We got calls from the East Coast, everywhere.”
Nevertheless, he persisted.
Attorneys throughout Riverside County declined to take his case. At the eleventh hour, Mr. Moffatt said, he was contacted by Rodney Howard-Browne, a much more flamboyant and controversial preacher than Mr. Moffatt and a man who had been arrested for defying coronavirus shutdown orders at his River Church in Tampa, Florida.
Through Mr. Browne, Mr. Moffatt learned of the Center for American Liberty and through them was introduced to Harmeet Dhillon, the lawyer who leads the center and a former chairwoman of the California Republican Party.
Mr. Moffatt joined Ms. Dhillon’s lawsuit, which also included three other California Pentecostals: Wendy Gish, Patrick Scales and Brenda Wood.
“Thank God for Harmeet Dhillon,” Mr. Moffatt said. “I couldn’t get anyone to help us. Nobody wanted to take the case. I was crying when I learned she would.”
Ms. Dhillon’s lawsuit, filed on April 13, 2020, was straightforward.
“For the duration of California’s coronavirus lockdown, the Government has let the public stroll freely down the busy aisles of their local grocery store for an indefinite period; go to the hospital for certain types of elective surgeries; and even arrange for plumbers, electricians, and exterminators to come into their homes for extended periods,” her brief said. “Yet, the Church Members cannot go to church; attend a baptism; gather to pray for the sick and dying; or even attend an outdoor funeral service for departed loved ones, regardless of the number of persons attending or the precautions they offered to take.”
Mr. Newsom and then-California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, both Democrats, fought back. They told the court that the power of the state in a public health emergency trumped the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion and assembly.
Most federal judges who heard the case sided with the government. Mr. Moffatt and the other plaintiffs lost at the federal district court. They also lost before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
On Jan. 6, Ronald Coleman, a lawyer at Ms. Dhillon’s firm, filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. On Feb. 8, the justices agreed with the churchgoers and told the 9th Circuit to think again.
Mr. Moffatt rejoiced at what he hopes will be a signal victory for confessional people looking to religion to help them cope with the strains of COVID-19, as well as something of a landmark case putting clearer limits on the state.
“So many people wanted to go to church through all this,” he said. “The church is supposed to be the center of hope. Now the state is already retreating; they’re changing their tune.
“My father taught me that when they come for you, you make your stand in the beginning, don’t waver,” he said. “But we didn’t do this only for us, only for Church Unlimited and the others [plaintiffs]. We were fighting for all the churches because we believe in the First Amendment.”
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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