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'Biblical mandate.' California churches ready to defy governor after Supreme Court ruling

By Dale Kasler, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in News & Features

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Greg Fairrington, pastor of a Rocklin, California, megachurch that's been defying California's pandemic restrictions on indoor churchgoing, opened Sunday's service by pulling out his cell phone and reading aloud from a fresh U.S. Supreme Court decision.

"There is no world in which the Constitution tolerates a color-coded executive edict that opens liquor stores ... and bike shops but shutters churches," Fairrington said, quoting the opinion written by Justice Neil Gorsuch.

The pastor then looked out at his congregants at Destiny Church and shouted: "The Supreme Court of the United States of America — yeah! We have a biblical mandate and First Amendment rights!" What appeared to be a large crowd of worshippers, packed closely together, roared its approval.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's order preventing indoor church services in much of California, a move aimed at halting the spread of COVID-19, may have hit a major legal obstacle. Last week, the Supreme Court struck down New York state's rules that limited in-person attendance at houses of worship, declaring it was unconstitutional to severely restrict church and synagogue attendance while allowing merchants and other non-religious institutions to welcome big crowds.

The 5-4 ruling — with the swing vote cast by President Donald Trump's newest appointee to the court, Amy Coney Barrett — could scramble the pandemic legal landscape as coronavirus infections surge in California and elsewhere. A Pasadena church last week petitioned the Supreme Court for an injunction that would block Newsom's rules on church gatherings.

Separately, a federal judge in Sacramento, presiding over a lawsuit filed against Newsom by a Lodi church, ordered both sides Monday to submit additional legal arguments about the potential impact of the New York case.

 

The New York ruling shows "the Constitution is not suspended by the virus," said Dean Broyles, the lawyer representing Cross Culture Christian Center, the Lodi church challenging Newsom's directives. "You're going to see more and more churches defying the (governor's) order."

New York's rules limited church attendance to 10 or 25 congregants, depending on the size of the institution. In California, indoor services are completely forbidden in counties that have been placed in the purple category — the most restrictive of the tiers. With coronavirus infections at record levels, about 99% of the state's population, including the greater Sacramento area, lives in purple counties.

Capital Christian Center, one of the Sacramento area's largest churches, is looking at whether it can reopen for in-person attendance in light of the Supreme Court case.

"We are taking a fresh look," the church's chief operations officer Jason Batt said. "We're reading the ruling in depth." He added that Capital Christian believes it "can safely host in-person services" but is also consulting with state and local health officials.

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