Federal court declines church's bid to lift California Covid restrictions by Christmas

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A federal appeals court has declined to lift California’s coronavirus restrictions on a Pasadena church in time for Christmas, blocking in-person worship services from being held amid the pandemic.

In a ruling handed down Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit decided it would not grant the Harvest Rock Church’s request for relief from the restrictions by Thursday, on Christmas Eve.

It was a 2-1 decision by the panel of judges, with Barack Obama appointee Morgan Christen and Bill Clinton appointee Johnnie Rawlinson ruling in favor of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders.

Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, a Ronald Reagan appointee, partly concurred and partly dissented with the majority ruling, writing that “it is not the church’s fault that it finds itself in this predicament.”

O’Scannlain wrote that while he “[does] not object to the panel’s determination that more time is needed to evaluate the merits of” the church’s motion, “we should not deprive the church of any hope of relief during the period of time it takes our court to do so.”

“Even if we need more time to consider the pending motion in full,” O’Scannlain wrote, “we should have granted the church at least the temporary relief it needs to ensure that its members can exercise freely the fundamental right to practice their Christian religion on one of the most sacred Christian days of the year.”

The Harvest Rock Church’s emergency injunction motion came after California-based U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal denied the church’s request for a second time on Monday.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Bernal to reconsider his initial August ruling against the church following the justices’ recent decision dissolving New York’s limits on in-person worship.

The Supreme Court has given states less discretion in enforcing coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings since Justice Amy Coney Barrett replaced the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in October.

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