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Despite recent SCOTUS ruling, federal appeals court in California says churches must remain closed

Sen. Ted Cruz is right.

It’s there in the title of the Texas Republican’s new book, “One Vote Away: How a Single Supreme Court Seat Can Change History.”

For example, on May 30, a New York Times headline announced over a story about a California church’s effort to fight COVID-19 restrictions, “Supreme Court, in 5-4 Decision, Rejects Church’s Challenge to Shutdown Order.”

A few months later, liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, and the Senate approved President Donald Trump’s choice to replace her, conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Thus, in late November, the Times was able to report, “Splitting 5 to 4, Supreme Court Backs Religious Challenge to Cuomo’s Virus Shutdown Order.”

In cases out of New York, New Jersey, Colorado and California, the nation’s high court has signaled again and again that state governments cannot be more restrictive on places where a large number of people congregate. Despite that, the message seems lost in translation.

By a 2-1 margin, a panel of the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a church’s challenge to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus clampdown, Fox News reported on Wednesday.

Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena wanted a temporary restraining order on Newsom’s rules so it could host Christmas services.

The church’s congregation has been meeting “illegally,” as local media describe it, in defiance of Newsom’s stay-at-home order. On Monday, a district court judge rejected its request for a legal waiver to the COVID rules for Christmas.

The state had argued that Newsom’s directives allow for outdoor worship, and were “neutral” in treating all types of establishments the same in terms of indoor crowd control.

Yet, according to Pasadena Now, the church’s lawyer, Mat Staver, countered that the Supreme Court had issued its guidelines for houses of worship.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has already issued its constitutional roadmap for houses of worship that should lead courts to find Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive edicts violate the First Amendment,” Staver said. “The high court has ruled and therefore all lower courts must obey that decision to allow houses of worship their First Amendment freedom.”

The dissenter, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, was adamant that the church should have been allowed to hold services while the court sorted out the dispute.

“I strongly object to our failure to accommodate, even in a temporary fashion, Harvest Rock Church’s request for relief from California’s severe restrictions on indoor worship services by December 24,” he wrote in a two-page opinion.

“The requested deadline is hardly arbitrary: The church seeks immediate action from our court so that its members can worship on Christmas Day, one of the most sacred holy days in the Christian calendar. And it is not the church’s fault that it finds itself in this predicament. The church moved for a temporary restraining order against California’s worship-related restrictions as soon as this case was remanded following a decision by the Supreme Court (in early December) – yet it had to wait more than two weeks before the district court ruled on that motion.”

“I do not object to the panel’s determination that more time is needed to evaluate the merits of Harvest Rock Church’s motion,” Judge O’Scannlain added.

“But 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, 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.”

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