The Church’s Freedom Fight Continues
By Christmas Beeler
In a landmark decision late Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted California’s ban on indoor church services, ruling that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s strict orders violate the Constitution’s protection for the free exercise of religion. However, in the 6-3 decision, judges did not overturn the state’s attendance cap of 25-percent capacity or the ban on indoor singing—as the high court continues to define what religious freedom looks like amidst a pandemic.
Calvary Pastors Take Stand
Several Calvary Chapel pastors are among U.S. church leaders who have been fighting for religious freedom during the pandemic and still await court decisions concerning their individual churches.
Pastor Ken Graves of Calvary Chapel Bangor, ME, has been in a legal battle with his state’s governor over attendance restrictions since May. Of the Friday ruling, he said, “The central issue of the case was whether or not the government has the right to order churches to close. And that was addressed in our favor. The majority of the court recognized that this constitutionally protected right cannot be violated under any circumstance—whether in an emergency or perceived emergency. The Church still has our God-given rights enshrined in our Constitution. Freedom of religion means exactly that.” He added, “The peripheral issues of limiting the number of people who can meet indoors and [the ban on singing] are things that are going to have to be contended with later. We still have a fight ahead of us.”
Pastor Ken urges other pastors to seek the Lord about how to take a stand. “My frustration is really the lack of fight and lack of resistance within the Church of America in general. This is not a safety issue. As pastors we are well able to determine what is in the best interest of our people. Maybe in some cities it wasn’t safe to gather,” Ken explained. “But our churches are essentially ceding authority to the government that it does not have according to the Constitution. We are granting it, surrendering it.”
Another pastor who has taken a stand for his flock is Pastor Mike McClure of Calvary Christian Fellowship in San Jose, CA. Mike has refused to shut his doors despite substantial mounting fines from Santa Clara County over the past year. Asked about when to take a stand against the government, Pastor Mike advised, “You can’t violate your conscience or go against God’s Word. If the government or anyone is trying to get you to go against those two things, that’s how you’ll know.”
Seeking the Lord
As believers who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, Pastor Mike encouraged, “The most important thing is that when we pray and seek the Lord, He is going to speak to us. He doesn’t give us the spirit of fear. If we are stuck in fear, we are not living in faith. We need to get past whatever fear is holding us back. Maybe pray and fast through that. He will give us a sound mind and speak to us. It’s easy to listen to people. It’s hard to take time to really listen to the Lord. As pastors, more than ever we need to be in prayer, seeking the Lord, and stepping out in faith. Fear is contagious—but so is courage and faith. I’m so encouraged by other pastors who are standing up for the Gospel.”
The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD shall be safe. Proverbs 29:25
Mike added, “Think about heaven and hell, life and death—that’s what is at stake here. Everyone will stand before God, and our job is to preach the Gospel and share the Good News. We need to be obedient to God, and trust Him with the outcome.”
Pastor Ken Graves of Calvary Chapel Bangor, ME, appealed his state’s church attendance limits in May only to have the case turned away by the appeals court on technical grounds on December 22—despite the Supreme Court’s ruling to remove church attendance restrictions in Colorado a week earlier.
After the Supreme Court’s favorable rulings in New York and Colorado, several lower courts removed restrictions on houses of worship. Calvary Chapel of Dayton Valley, NV, was granted its petition in December by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which found that it was unconstitutional for Nevada to treat casinos and other businesses more favorably than churches. When CC Dayton Valley—along with 19 state attorneys general—sought a ruling from the Supreme Court that would have clarified that all states should not show such favoritism, the highest court turned away the case in January.
Still, Ken is hopeful that Friday’s ruling may change things in the Church’s fight for freedom. “This ruling against California, together with the Supreme Court’s ruling on Thanksgiving Eve against Governor Cuomo in New York, is all setting a precedent that has to be factored in [to our case]. Now it’s our job to make sure that the district court is aware that the precedent set in New York and California applies to Maine as well. It is a victory, but we still have a legal fight.”
The two churches that had filed against the California ban are South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Harvest Rock Church of San Diego. In their request to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Harvest Rock Church argued that Newsom discriminated against religious institutions while allowing nonreligious entities to continue to gather with fewer restrictions. “For the governor, COVID-19 restrictions are apparently optional and penalty free. But for Churches or anyone worshipping in their own home with someone who does not live there, COVID-19 restrictions are mandatory and enforced via criminal penalties,” lawyers for Harvest Rock wrote in its request to the Supreme Court.
Justices expressed varied opinions after the Friday ruling about the attendance cap and the ban on singing.
In favor of removing all restrictions, Justice Neil Gorsuch noted, “Since the arrival of COVID-19, California has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses. … [T]oday in most of the State, California forbids any kind of indoor worship. Meanwhile, the State allows most retail operations to proceed indoors with 25% occupancy, and other businesses to operate at 50% occupancy or more.” Gorsuch also felt the singing ban was a double standard: “It seems California’s powerful entertainment industry has won an exemption. So, once more, we appear to have a State playing favorites during a pandemic, expending considerable effort to protect lucrative industries (casinos in Nevada; movie studios in California) while denying similar largesse to its faithful.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the court’s newest conservative justice, wrote for herself and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, that she agreed with Gorsuch on all points except the singing ban. “The applicants [the churches] bore the burden of establishing their entitlement to relief from the singing ban. In my view, they did not carry that burden—at least not on this record.” She added, “Of course, if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral. But the record is uncertain, and the decisions below unfortunately shed little light on the issue.”
All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.
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