Attorney: No plan to sue county thanks to revised order on religious services

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Worshippers gather at a drive-in Easter service provided by 412 Church at Reading Cinemas in Murrieta, April 12. Everyone attending the public service parked and observed the service from their cars in compliance with social distancing guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Valley News/Shane Gibson photos

RIVERSIDE (CNS) – A Murrieta pastor who was threatening to sue Riverside County over prohibitions against religious gatherings under coronavirus-related public health orders will not move forward thanks to amended orders expressly permitting drive-in services.

“We’re pleased Riverside County made the decision it did based on the governor’s order,” attorney Robert Tyler, representing Pastor Tim Thompson, told City News Service. “We’re looking forward to seeing further lifting of restrictions in the future.”

County Board of Supervisors Chairman Manuel Perez announced this afternoon the county would rescind its blanket prohibition against on-site worship services amid the COVID-19 emergency, in response to a revised order by Gov. Gavin Newsom stating that drive-in services, with parishioners remaining in their vehicles, are now permissible.

The county had made allowances for the very same activity during Easter.

Tyler had denounced the county’s earlier restriction as “over-broad because it makes no exceptions for religious institutions taking extensive protective measures.”

“Pastor Thompson intends to hold drive-in style church services in the parking lot of 412 Church in a manner that respects the current social distancing restrictions and the health and safety of the community,” Tyler said.

“However, he will not cease gathering together because members of 412 Church hold a sincere religious belief that the Bible calls them to gather in the same physical location for worship. The county’s order places attendees of 412 Church in the difficult position of abiding by the order, or violating their religious beliefs.”

Tyler questioned why houses of worship were targeted for restrictions — while complying with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on social distancing — when “a grocery store, hardware store or liquor store can have a large amount of people in the same location?”

“This reflects upon the arbitrary nature of determining what businesses are ‘essential,'” he said in a demand letter sent to the county Thursday.

The San Francisco-based Center for American Liberty filed a federal civil complaint against the county in U.S. District Court in Riverside on Monday, citing assaults on the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution by county Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser’s April 6 order, which bars public gatherings except for specified activities, such as
health care and distribution center operations.

The center’s attorney, Harmeet Dhillon, told City News Service the changes implemented by Newsom and Riverside County “provide only partial relief,” and hence the lawsuit will proceed.

“People still cannot go into a church, even if they’re wearing a mask and gloves and staying a safe distance apart,” she said.

“So, this still puts people of faith in a worse position than, say, people seeking to buy food or go to a laundromat. We want the state to declare ‘safe worship’ an essential service and treat people of faith on par with other essential services.”

In addition to some of the same claims for relief submitted by the Center for American Liberty, Tyler also pointed to the federal Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 in his letter to the county. The act makes it unlawful to establish zoning regulations that discriminate against religious assemblies.

Kaiser’s edict specifies fines up to $1,000 per violation of the county regulations.

Tyler said his firm has been contacted by ministers in other counties seeking legal help pushing back against local restrictions on in-person religious services.

“Some pastors want to hold communion, and they are willing to abide by all the CDC standards,” Tyler told City News Service. “If someone wants to go receive communion in a church, it’s no less safe than someone going in and buying wine at a grocery store.”

The Center for American Liberty is seeking injunctive relief against both the county’s and state’s health emergency orders. Parties to the action include Church Unlimited Pastor James Dean Moffatt of Indio and World Life Ministries International Pastor Brenda Wood of Riverside.