California Governor Gavin Newsom's ability to close churches or limit their occupancy due to COVID-19 restrictions came to a sharp end this week. The state of California settled a lawsuit over coronavirus restrictions placed on churches, earning religious liberty a major legal victory.
As part of the settlement, California now operates under a permanent injunction that prevents it from imposing restrictions on churches which are not equally applied to other essential services. According to the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, Mat Staver, that's exactly what's at stake. Staver told listeners on "Washington Watch" that the terms they demanded for the settlement was "a full blown, complete, total settlement, complete equal treatment, no more discrimination across the board." And that's what they got -- equal treatment for churches.
Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal organization that defends religious freedom, filed the lawsuit on behalf of Pastor Che Ahn, leader of Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry in Pasadena, who simply wanted to open the doors of his church and hold normal services. For this simple act, he was threatened.
Staver recounted that Pastor Ahn "got a letter from the Pasadena criminal prosecutor, threatening him, his staff." The letter threatened any churchgoer with "criminal charges, up to one year in prison, and daily fines of a thousand dollars. And so [Pastor Ahn] had to tell his church members" that they could face criminal charges for coming to church.
Pastor Ahn worried that many people would refrain from coming to church. Yet, the opposite turned out to be the case. Most of the congregation continued attending services, and other Christians looking for a church and even non-believers who were interested starting attending Harvest Rock Church.
Staver says that other pastors who stood up to unfair coronavirus restrictions are experiencing similar growth. Churches that "stood up against this adversity, this persecution, they're seeing revival happening in their communities."
Governor Newsom's yearlong COVID-19 restrictions on churches were so strict that Californians were even banned from participating in Bible studies in private homes and singing. With the new permanent statewide injunction, this will never be allowed to happen in California again.
America is not the only place where COVID-19 was used as a pretext to establish harsh and discriminatory measures against religious groups and houses of worship. Bad actors in governments around the world seized upon the cover of the pandemic to discriminate against religious groups.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) tracked this global trend. Former USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin and Vice Chair and FRC President Tony Perkins wrote in Newsweek that "[s]ome measures to restrict in-person religious activities were justifiable on public health grounds, while others unfairly targeted religious communities and were troubling. We saw an alarming rise of religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism, in a range of countries based on misinformation about the source and spread of the virus."
The context of an emergency, even a legitimate public health concern, should never be a reason to allow governments to abuse their power in order to target houses of worship or religious institutions. It's a violation of the basic right to freedom of religion, and a violation of U.S. law. Governor Newsom just learned that lesson the hard way.