Attorneys for Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry in Pasadena, California, have announced a settlement of a religious freedom lawsuit against Governor Gavin Newsom and other state officials related to that state’s discriminatory treatment of churches related to COVID restrictions. The agreement, approved by a federal district court judge, results in a permanent injunction blocking the state from treating churches differently from similarly situated secular businesses and entities with its pandemic rules, plus awards $1.35 million to the church for attorneys fees incurred in defending its constitutional rights.
The dispute goes back to the summer of 2020, when the church brought a lawsuit against the state for its COVID restrictions that treated houses of worship less favorably than secular businesses. At times those orders completely prohibited worship gatherings for over 90% of Californians, and even prohibited home Bible studies.
Harvest Rock’s case has been up to the U.S. Supreme Court twice since then, and on the last occasion, the high court issued an order on February 5, 2021 blocking California’s total ban on indoor worship.
Liberty Counsel represents Harvest Rock, and its pastor, Ché Ahn. In a press release on Liberty Counsel’s website, the pastor celebrated the settlement.
“This is a momentous day for churches in America! After nearly a yearlong battle defending our religious freedoms, our lawsuit has reached a permanent settlement in our favor,” the pastor said. “I am thrilled to see the complete reversal of the last discriminatory restrictions against churches in California, knowing this case will act as a precedent, not only in our state, but also in our nation. We are incredibly grateful to our attorney Mat Staver and to Liberty Counsel for their relentless support and fierce determination. Most of all, we give all the glory to God for moving mightily in this historic season!”
Liberty Counsel’s president, Mat Staver, likewise sounded a note of satisfaction.
“Governor Gavin Newsom’s COVID restrictions discriminated against churches while providing preferential treatment to many secular businesses and gatherings. The Supreme Court intervened multiple times to provide relief,” he said. “Under the settlement, California may never again place discriminatory restrictions on churches and places of worship. We are grateful for Pastor Ché Ahn, Harvest Rock Church, and Harvest International Ministry. Pastor Ahn’s leadership and courage has toppled the tyranny and freed every pastor and church in California.”
Harvest Rock’s legal resolution was made possible because of changes in the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court. Last summer, the high court’s first decision involving claims of discrimination against California churches over COVID regulations deferred heavily to the state government’s decisions in a 5-4 vote. However, in October, Justice Amy Coney Barrett was sworn in to replace the recently deceased liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In the first major religious freedom case that came to the court after Barrett’s appointment, the justices for the first time ordered a state – New York – to stop treating churches more harshly with COVID restrictions than similarly situated secular businesses and establishments. That case was Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo. Following that decision, the high court then ordered the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to take a second look at the claims of Harvest Rock.
Between the time of the New York decision and the Harvest Rock settlement, the Supreme Court ruled five times in favor of California churches. The handwriting was on the wall for Golden State officials, and they had little choice but to settle with Harvest Rock.
As the U.S. Department of Justice attempted to tell California in 2020, there is no pandemic exception to the Bill of Rights. It took until this week for the truth of that statement to play out in the courts.
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