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San Diego churches continue legal battle to reopen for indoor services

Posted at 5:32 PM, Nov 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-19 20:32:08-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — While many houses of worship have moved outdoors in compliance with the latest purple tier restrictions, others say this infringes on their religious rights.

Many churches have chosen to keep their doors open for indoor worship, and a San Diego attorney is helping some fight this in court.

“The restrictions on houses of worship are arbitrary,” said Paul Jonna, an attorney with law firm LiMandri & Jonna LLP. “No matter what size the church is, they’re closed indoors.”

Jonna represents religious leaders and churches in three separate legal battles happening in Los Angeles, Kern, and San Diego counties.

“You can’t treat a church like a hair salon,” he said. “Churches are entitled to heightened protection; if you’re going to restrict the fundamental right to exercise religion, which is protected under the first amendment, you need a really, really good reason.”

He believes religious services are essential, and shutdown orders on churches are not constitutional.

“It’s affecting people’s mental health, it’s affecting their spiritual health, for people of faith there’s nothing more important than going to church and worshiping God,” he said.

The local church represented by Jonna is South Bay Pentecostal Church. They initially took their fight to keep churches open all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court a few months ago but lost in a 5 to 4 decision.

The battle isn’t over just yet; Jonna submitted a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday calling for an emergency review of South Bay Pentecostal Church’s case.

“We are quite confident that in the very near future, we’ll get a good ruling from the Supreme Court,” he said. “We also think the dynamic has changed now with Justice Barrett being confirmed to the Supreme Court.”

Doctors, state and county health officials have repeatedly said indoor gatherings are dangerous during this pandemic, as COVID-19 could spread easily inside.

According to San Diego Health and Human Services Agency data, in the first two weeks of November, 7,661 positive COVID-19 cases were reported.

Of those cases, 4,917 people were interviewed, and 168 cases were possibly contracted at places of worship.

Jonna said his client, Bishop Arthur Hodges, the senior pastor of South Bay Pentecostal Church, is doing all he can to make sure worshippers are safe in his church.

“He goes above and beyond the CDC guidelines,” said Jonna. “He requires people to get temperature checks; he’s complying with the masks, social distancing, everything, ventilation systems.”

Bishop Hodges tells ABC 10News that since reopening, he has seen zero COVID-19 cases due to being in his church.