Victory for Two Places of Worship in Church-State Federal Lawsuit Challenging Unconstitutional COVID-19 Restrictions

State Pays $400,000 in Attorney’s Fees and San Joaquin County Pays $100,000 in Damages.

Sacramento, CA—One of the first federal lawsuits challenging government restrictions imposed on places of worship in California settled in favor of the plaintiff churches this week (Cross Culture Christian Center et al v. Newsom et al).  The federal civil rights lawsuit, filed early in the pandemic on April 22, 2020, was resolved in the middle of the churches’ appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  Plaintiffs were challenging U.S. Federal District Court Judge John Mendez’s denial of Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, in spite of a string of pro-church rulings at the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the free exercise of religion.  This settlement is yet another big win for the First Amendment, its protection of the free exercise of religion, and places of worship challenging government overreach. 

Cross Culture Christian Center (CCCC) of Lodi and its pastor Jon Duncan as well as Cornerstone Church of Fresno and its pastor Jim Franklin were represented by their lead counsel, Dean Broyles, of the National Center for Law & Policy.  Attorneys with Advocates for Faith & Freedom also served as co-counsel for Plaintiffs on the legal team.  State Defendants included Governor Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Rob Bonta, and Public Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón.  San Joaquin County Defendants included Dr. Maggie Park and Marcia Cunningham.  Fresno County Defendants included Dr. Rais Vohra and David Pomaville.

State Defendants will pay $400,000 in attorney’s fees to Plaintiffs’ counsel.  San Joaquin County Defendants, which had targeted CCCC and its landlord Bethel Open Bible Church’s (BOBC) with an oppressive order to shut down the entire church property will pay $100,000 to CCCC.  BOBC used the county’s unlawful order as an excuse to illegally cancel CCCC’s lease and lock the church out of the building.  On information and belief, this is the first time where a county has paid damages to a church resulting from government COVID-19 restrictions.  This settlement follows on the heels of other recent settlements and stipulated judgments in other church-state cases in April and May of 2021 (See Harvest Rock v. Newsom and South Bay Pentecostal Church v. Newsom), lifting statewide permanent injunctions against its capacity limits, singing bans and any other restriction that discriminate against churches compared to essential businesses.  California’s sudden capitulation followed more than a year of aggressively defending its harsh and unique restrictions on places of worship and demonizing places of worship as “super-spreaders.”  The catalyst for change was the U.S. Supreme Court’s issuance of its fifth ruling slamming California’s discriminatory treatment of churches and the Ninth Circuit’s improper rulings in Tandon v. Newsom

“Early in the pandemic, everyone was so fearful and told us we were going to lose our case,” stated Pastor Jon Duncan.  “But it’s never acceptable to give up your constitutional rights.  Churches weren’t the only ones to suffer under government tyranny and overreach.  So many small businesses suffered, and people died alone in rest homes.  This is unacceptable and we must never let this happen again.  We are very grateful for the courageous representation we received and feel vindicated by this successful outcome.  Early in the pandemic, when everyone was so afraid, we had a hard time finding legal organizations who had the courage to represent us—a little church facing big government oppression.  We feel vindicated.  Justice is sweet,” Duncan concluded.

“Church is essential,” said Pastor Jim Franklin. “We have known from day one that the state was overreaching.  We are so pleased the U.S. Supreme Court vindicated our civil rights, forcing California to acknowledge, honor and respect our fundamental constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.”  Franklin continued, “This was a long, hard, and sometimes unpopular legal battle.  Religious freedom is non-negotiable and we are so grateful for our legal team and that they never wavered in their commitment to us, to our church and to our First Amendment rights.” 

“Civil rights are not suspended by a virus,” stated the NCLP’s Dean Broyles. “The U.S. Constitution is non-negotiable.  Religious freedom is our first freedom.  While we are pleased with this ultimate result, this epic legal battle was avoidable and unnecessary.  Very early in the pandemic, I politely asked Governor Newsom to do his constitutional duty as our public servant by, at a minimum, treating churches as ‘essential,’ as other state governors have done.  Unfortunately, he ignored my written request.” 

“During the pandemic, the government was so quick to oppress and so slow to liberate people of faith, even when caught with its hand in the proverbial constitutional cookie jar,” continued Broyles.  “But, the law and good sense overcame fear and, ultimately, the constitution held.  The arc of history bends to Justice.  Places of worship are not automatic super-spreaders.  The same science that protects you at Walmart protects you at worship.  Sadly, not until the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled for the fifth time against Newsom’s discriminatory and unconstitutional restrictions on places of worship in April 2021, did the state finally agree to cease coercively imposing its restrictions on the religious believers.  Vigilance is the price of liberty.  People of faith must always steadfastly stand up for their God-given civil rights, or they will lose them.” 

You can view the federal civil rights complaint in Cross Culture Christian Center v. Newsom, here.

The National Center for Law & Policy is a non-profit 501(c)(3) legal defense organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of religious freedom, the affirmation of life, parental rights, and other civil liberties. Please visit our website at www.nclplaw.org

For further inquiries, comments, or to schedule interviews, please contact Dean Broyles at The National Center for Law & Policy at 760-747-4529 or dbroyles@nclplaw.org

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