Federal Appeals Court Backs California Gov. Newsom’s Order Banning In-Person Church Services to Prevent Spread of Coronavirus

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference at the Veterans Home of California, May 22, 2020, in Yountville, Calif.
Eric Risberg/AP

A federal appeals court has backed California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order banning in-church services to blunt the spread of coronavirus, rejecting an argument from clerics that the governor is treading on their First Amendment right to free exercise of their religious beliefs.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a split 2-1 ruling denying the request for a temporary restraining order against Newsom’s in-church service ban filed this month by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, California.

The ruling was issued late on Friday, the same day President Donald Trump demanded governors nationwide allow churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship to reopen immediately.

“The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend. If they don’t do it, I will override the governors,” Trump said as his administration released detailed guidance on how religious institutions can safely reopen amid the virus that has killed nearly 100,000 people and infected more than 1.6 million in the United States. “In America we need more prayer, not less.”

It is unclear what legal authority the president has to overrule a governor and the White House could not cite a specific provision that would give Trump that power.

In its ruling in the California case, the federal appellate judges who sided with Newsom found the state’s action of shuttering houses of worship due to a health emergency does not “infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation” and does not “in a selective manner impose burdens only on conduct motivated by religious belief.”

”We’re dealing here with a highly contagious and often fatal disease for which there presently is no known cure,” Judges Jacqueline Nguyen and Barry Silverman wrote in their ruling denying the restraining order.

In reaching its decision, the judges noted that late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once wrote that if a court “does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”

Newsom issued his stay-at-home orders on March 19, closing all nonessential businesses and barring large gatherings that health officials say could fuel the spread of the contagion.

On Wednesday, the second phase of Newsom’s plan to restart the economy kicked in allowing the reopening of many of California’s retail businesses, office buildings, restaurants and shopping centers.

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SOURCE: ABC News, Bill Hutchinson