A bishop in San Diego’s South Bay community is suing the state and county, arguing it is time to let his church reopen for worship services because he believes church is an essential service.
“We’ve passed the point where the government can impose an emergency order that takes away our free exercise of religion,” Pastor Arthur E. Hodges III, of South Bay United Pentecostal Church, told NBC 7 Wednesday.
Hodges, along with Rabbi Mendel Polichenco of Chabad of Carmel Valley, filed a 128-page civil rights lawsuit on May 8 in San Diego federal court challenging California Governor Gavin Newsom’s stay at home orders that have banned religious services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuit also challenges orders from San Diego County and city leaders.
“It is time,” the lawsuit begins. “California is one of only eight states whose response to the COVID-19 pandemic has included no accommodation for—hardly even a mention of—the religious rights of its citizens. Now, with the pandemic stabilizing, California has moved from ‘Stage 1’ to ‘Stage 2.’ In the first part of Stage 2, beginning on Friday, May 8, retail and manufacturing may begin reopening—but not places of worship.”
“In the latter part of Stage 2, within a ‘few weeks,’ shopping malls, car washes, pet grooming, offices, dine-in restaurants, schools may reopen—but again, not places of worship,” the suit continues. “No, churches will be allowed to reopen months later in ‘Stage 3,’ at the same time as salons, tattoo parlors, gyms, bars, and movie theaters. But worship is not frivolous entertainment: it is the first right protected in the First Amendment.”
So far, Hodges and Polichenco have abided by state and county orders to keep their places of worship shut.
Today, Hodges’ church looks like this: A camera. A pastor. An empty room.
And that’s not good enough for Hodges. He wants things to change by the end of this month, and for churches to be allowed to reopen under the state’s Phase 2 plan.
The bishop told NBC 7 he understands the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve personally had two very close friends that have been lost to COVID,” he explained over a video interview.
Still, Hodges said assembling in person is key to his religion and the several hundred people in his congregation.
“For example, it’s essential for people to be baptized,” he said. “But you can’t baptize yourself. You have to have the church, the clergy, to do that.”
Hodges argues that it’s demeaning that “Californians who need the spirit of Almighty God settle for the lesser spirits dispensed out of liquor stores.”
“When Governor Newsom puts us in the category of sporting events and entertainment, no, I’m sorry, governor,” he added.
While Hodges said he’s concerned about the potential health risks of having his congregation together in one space again, his church is planning for this.
“We’ve got charts churches of every size can use; if your square footage is this, and you’ve normally seated this, then this is what you can expect to seat and this is how you arrange,” he added.
Hodges has joined several California churches in a pledge to reopen by the end of the month, no matter what.
“May 31, Pentecost Sunday, the doors of churches will be open,” he said.
But he hopes matters are resolved by then and that disobeying the law is not the answer.
“I think that civil disobedience should be the last course of action,” he added.
And so, he’ll pray.
NBC 7 reached out to the county, which said it does not comment on pending litigation. NBC 7 also reached out to Newsom’s office for a comment on pastors across the state potentially reopening by the end of May, but we did not hear back.
Hodges and Polichenco are being represented by the Law Offices of LiMandri & Jonna LLP, Thomas More Society, and Dhillon Law Group.
Read the full lawsuit here.