FILE – Church pews

(The Center Square) – Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Supreme Court requesting an injunction pending appeal in their federal lawsuit against California Gov. Gavin Newsom. The ministries, which allege Newsom’s executive orders violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion rights, are represented by Liberty Counsel, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization committed to religious freedom.

Last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision did not grant an injunction pending appeal, although the court will hear the merits of the request in a hearing that has yet to be scheduled for early next year. Due to impending criminal threats and fines, the churches requested the U.S. Supreme Court intervene while the case remains pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver noted that, “The recent ‘Blueprint’ issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom reveals a clear discrimination against religious gatherings. California cannot give preferential treatment to nonreligious meetings over religious meetings. The virus does not discriminate between nonreligious and religious meetings, but Gov. Newsom does. This discrimination violates the First Amendment.”

Harvest Rock Church has multiple campuses in California, including in Pasadena, Los Angeles, Irvine and Corona; Harvest International Ministries has 162 member churches statewide.

Harvest Rock Church has received letters from the city of Pasadena’s Planning and Community Development Department and Code Enforcement Division, and from the Pasadena Office of the City Attorney/City Prosecutor, Criminal Division, threatening up to one year in prison, daily criminal charges and $1,000 fines against the pastors, church, governing board, staff and parishioners, including a threat to physically close the church and bar parishioners entry.

The Blueprint initially issued August 28, 2020, and since amended to include additional restrictions, established a system of four tiers. Liberty Counsel argues the Blueprint “discriminates against religious meetings in churches and places of worship in every tier,” which it highlights in a chart attached to the petition.

Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry have churches in Tier 1, which prohibits all indoor worship services, including home Bible studies with anyone who does not live in the host’s home.

“From the first stay-at-home order in March to the present, Governor Newsom has allowed feeding, sheltering, and nonreligious counseling with an unlimited number of people in the same church building, but religious gatherings are either banned or severely restricted,” Liberty Counsel notes.

In Tiers 2 and 3, houses of worship are prohibited from having more than 100, and 200 people gather indoors, respectively, regardless of the size of the building. However, gyms, fitness centers, museums, family entertainment centers, retail, shopping malls, big box centers, warehouses, destination centers, swap meets, among others, have no numerical maximum cap on the number of people who are permitted by the Blueprint to congregate inside their respective buildings.

Pastor Che Ahn, who leads the ministries, said it is ministers' duty to “protect the First Amendment constitutional rights of the church and all people, while taking a specific stand against the misclassification of the worship of God as non-essential during this time of national unrest, economic strife, and physical ailment.”

“Safety, which was the original publicized goal of government mandates in California, has always been both the goal and the supportive action of Harvest Rock Church and the HIM network,” the church states about the lawsuit on its website.

Pastor Che Ahn argues, “The church has been essential for 2000 years. The church has forever been, and will continue to be, a place of healing for the people … and stands against all injustice and division, targeted segregation of civil liberties amongst citizens, and the injustice in deeming God, and the praise of God, as both non-essential and now criminal in the State of California.”

The appeal to the Supreme Court comes at a time when the governor issued a statewide curfew and counties are suing the governor over orders he continues to issue related to the coronavirus posing a public health threat.

According to the state database, 21.5 million people have been tested for the coronavirus. Of them, the state is reporting 1,047,789 cases.

As a percentage of the state’s population of 39 million people, the number of cases represents 2.65 percent. The number of people who have reportedly died from the coronavirus as a percentage of the state’s population is 0.046 percent.