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California Pentecostal Church loses worship ban lawsuit, appeals to Supreme Court

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California church and its bishop filed an emergency appeal Sunday with the Supreme Court in an attempt to force California Governor Gavin Newsom to allow churches to reopen amid the pandemic.

South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Bishop Arthur Hodges lost to an appeals court last week over their lawsuit against the Democratic state leader and his ban of in-person religious services, prompting the emergency request for the country’s top court to weigh in. A current shelter-in-place order prohibits churches from congregating.

As regions of the country are swiftly rolling back their social distancing measures to reopen businesses, President Donald Trump has sought to speed up the process by declaring churches “essential” and threatening to “override the governors” who refuse to immediately reopen them. The president does not have the constitutional authority to do so, and the White House has not provided the legal basis for such an argument.

However, in their request for the Supreme Court to hear the case by next Sunday, attorneys for the Southern California church and its bishop cited in their filing Trump’s threat and a warning from the Justice Department telling Newsom that his restrictions were discriminatory against religion. The justices’ guidance is “needed to avert a constitutional crisis,” the lawyers contended, because “thousands of churches across the country and in California plan to reopen by May 31…in defiance of any state executive orders, leading to widespread civil unrest.”

The appeal to the nation’s most powerful justices further escalates the debate at the crossroads of public health and religious freedom. Trump argued Friday that America needs “more prayer, not less” just before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled against South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Hodges.

Amid the intense public pressure, Newsom tweeted Monday that counties can reopen houses of worship for some in-person services. However, there are strict constraints that will come with the religious institutions’ gradual reopenings authorized under new guidelines Newsom unveiled.

With the thumbs up for county public health officials, churches in the Golden State may resume operations with 25 percent capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer. These provisions would last for three weeks as state officials monitor for any potential spike in coronavirus cases linked to the religious gatherings.

The guidelines place the power of allowing churches to return to in-person sessions in the hands of local leaders, potentially leading to county-by-county policies that could vary widely. It remains unclear whether the Supreme Court will weigh in on the complex matter in an emergency fashion, as has been requested.

Two of the three appeals court judges who sided with Newsom’s shelter-in-place order noted in their ruling Friday that the virus produces a “highly contagious and often fatal disease.”

“In the words of Justice Robert Jackson, if a ‘Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact,'” the judges wrote.

Newsom’s office did not respond to Newsweek’s request for comment.

An attorney for Hodges and the church, Charles LiMandri, told Newsweek Monday afternoon that he planned to file a supplemental letter brief with the Supreme Court Tuesday morning outlining several points. Among the arguments LiMandri will make will be his stated position that he still considers the new guidelines “both arbitrary and unconstitutional” because it limits Hodges’ church to 100 congregants and is “still interfering with their right to free exercise of religion.” The church can hold 600 people, LiMandri said.

Newsom’s policy is also unfair, LiMandri added, because it is applied to religious institutions but not other facilities or businesses.

“Our client has always said that he is willing to limit church attendance to one-third to one-half capacity, which is 200 to 300 people, which will still allow for mote than six feet between families,” LiMandri said. “This is further unconstitutional because the State is not placing similar onerous restrictions on secular facilities, such as office work spaces (no capacity limits), manufacturing (no capacity limits), and shopping centers (50% maximum capacity limit).”

LiMandri will further contend in his filing that the Supreme Court needs to rule because there is a split among circuit courts on when it comes to statewide directives shuttering churches.

“Otherwise, various government officials can keep setting arbitrary and unconstitutional restrictions,” he said, citing Illinois limiting churches to just 10 congregants and Chicago using law enforcement to enforce such restrictions.

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750 killed at Ethiopian Orthodox church said to contain Ark of the Covenant: report

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Around 750 people were killed in an attack on an Orthodox church, which is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant described in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, in northern Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region — home to thousands of churches and monasteries — according to reports.

Hundreds of people hiding in Maryam Tsiyon Church in Aksum amid an armed conflict were brought out and shot to death, and local residents believe the aim was to take the Ark of Covenant to Addis Ababa, the Belgium-based nonprofit European External Programme with Africa reported in this month’s situational report, released on Jan. 9.

“The number of people killed is reported as 750,” it said. The church, the most ancient and sacred of Ethiopian Christianity and also known as the Church of St. Mary of Zion, belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

“I’ve not heard more than rumours about the looting of the Arc from Maryam Tsion, but if it’s true that up to 750 died defending it, it is conceivable that the attackers didn’t stop there,” said Michael Gervers, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, according to The Telegraph.

“The government and the Eritreans want to wipe out the Tigrayan culture. They think they’re better than rest of the people in the country. The looting is about destroying and removing the cultural presence of Tigray,” Gervers explained.

Former BBC World Service Africa editor and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Martin Plaut, said that those who escaped the Aksum massacre had reported that the attack began after Ethiopian federal troops and Amhara militia approached the church, the U.K.’s Church Times reported.

“People were worried about the safety of the Ark, and when they heard troops were approaching feared they had come to steal it. All those inside the cathedral were forced out into the square,” Plaut was quoted as saying.

About 1,000 people were believed to be in the church complex at the time of the attack. The EEPA said the massacre was carried out by Ethiopian federal troops and allied Amhara militia that are fighting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

The church and and the Ark have likely not been damaged, Plaut added.

The fighting began in Tigray since Nov. 4 when the region’s ruling political party Tigray People’s Liberation Front captured the Northern Command army base in the regional capital Mekelle as part of an uprising, after which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive. Abiy claimed on Nov. 28 that the Ethiopian National Defense Force had regained “full command” of Mekelle.
Sources:Christian Post

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Charges dropped against deacon arrested for singing hymns outdoors

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A court has dismissed all charges against a church deacon who was one of the three arrested last September for singing while not wearing a mask at a “psalm sing” outdoor worship service held in Moscow City, Idaho.

The Idaho District Court dropped charges against Gabriel Rench in the case State of Idaho v. Gabriel Rench. The deacon was arrested at an event hosted by Christ Church and held outside City Hall in response to the extension of a COVID-19-prompted mask mandate imposed by Moscow’s mayor at the time, the law firm Thomas More Society, which represented the church, said.

“We had done the Psalm sing in the past under the same [mask] resolution and we weren’t arrested, we weren’t warned … we were just taking our constitutional liberties to do what we’re allowed to do under the Constitution — worship,” Rench said, referring to the event that was attended by about 200 people.

The city of Moscow, “appears to have been so anxious to make an example of Christ Church’s opposition to their desired COVID restrictions that they failed to follow the mandatory exemptions articulated in their own laws,” Thomas More Society Special Counsel Michael Jacques noted.

“The Moscow City Code allows the Mayor to issue public health emergency orders, but exempts ‘[a]ny and all expressive and associative activity that is protected by the United States and Idaho Constitutions, including speech, press, assembly, and/or religious activity,’” Jacques explained. “Mr. Rench and the other worshipers who were arrested had their constitutionally protected liberties violated and their lives disrupted — not only by the inappropriate actions of law enforcement officers, but also by city officials who did not immediately act to correct this unlawful arrest.”

After Rench and others were arrested in September, the church wrote on its Facebook page: “Yesterday Christ Church sponsored a flash psalm sing at city hall. We were going to appear there at quarter to [5 p.m.], sing three psalms or hymns, then the doxology, and then out. The songs were Psalm 20, Psalm 124, and ‘Amazing Grace.’ When we arrived, the police were waiting for us. One of them informed me that people either had to social distance or wear a mask or otherwise face a citation.”

Douglas Wilson, who wrote the post, added: “I told him that I would inform everyone of that, which I did. I said a brief prayer, and we began to sing. Over the following 15 minutes of singing, three of our people were arrested, and two others were cited.”
Sources:Christian Post

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