An appeals court has upheld California Gov. Gavin Newsom's ban on in-person church services amid the coronavirus pandemic, in a split ruling that found that government's emergency powers override what in normal times would be fundamental constitutional rights.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in San Diego cannot reopen immediately, the Los Angeles Times reported. In this case "constitutional standards that would normally govern our review of a Free Exercise claim should not be applied," the two judges in the majority wrote in their order.
"We're dealing here with a highly contagious and often fatal disease for which there presently is no known cure. In the words of Justice Robert Jackson, if a '(c)ourt does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact,'" they wrote.
The decision is likely to further anger opponents who claim that California's rules to stop the spread of the virus violate religious freedoms.
President Donald Trump on Friday labeled churches and other houses of worship as " essential " and called on governors nationwide to let them reopen this weekend even though some areas remain under coronavirus lockdown.
The president threatened to "override" governors who defy him, but it was unclear what authority he has to do so.
The ruling came the same week pastors vowed to hold in-person services May 31, Pentecost Sunday, defying a state moratorium on religious gatherings imposed by the governor, the Times reported.
In a letter to Newsom, Robert H. Tyler, an attorney representing a Lodi church that has challenged the governor's order in court, said more than 1,200 pastors have signed a "Declaration of Essentiality," asserting their churches are as essential as any grocery or hardware store and should be allowed to reopen.
Last week, many counties in California had received approval to reopen businesses including retail shops and restaurants as permitted in the second phase of Newsom's plan to restart the state economy. Churches are not allowed to reopen until the plan's third phase.
Trump-appointed Judge Daniel Collins dissented, writing "the State's position on this score illogically assumes that the very same people who cannot be trusted to follow the rules at their place of worship can be trusted to do so at their workplace," according to the newspaper.
Newsom has vowed to provide plans on reopening churches Monday. Some churches that have opened without authorization have been sources for spreading the coronavirus, including in Butte, Mendocino and Lake counties, according to the Times.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.