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'Criminalizing The Free Exercise Of Religion': Pastors Sue Newsom Over Stay-At-Home Orders

RIVERSIDE (CBSLA) - A Riverside County pastor is among several pastors involved in a federal lawsuit against California Gov. Gavin Newsom over his stay-at-home orders that have prevented mass gatherings, including church services.

A complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California alleges Newsom's administration is "criminalizing the free exercise of religion" after Indio pastor Dean Moffatt was fined $1,000 for holding a church service on Palm Sunday, the Sacramento Bee reported.

A San Bernardino County churchgoer, a San Bernardino County pastor and another Riverside County pastor are the other plaintiffs in the complaint.

The lawsuit is also suing California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and county supervisors and sheriffs for both Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

According to the complaint, Newsom and other officials have "seized the coronavirus pandemic to expand their authority by unprecedented lengths, depriving plaintiffs and all other residents of California of fundamental rights protected by the U.S. and California Constitutions, including freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, and due process and equal protection under the law".

The Dhillon Law Group, led by conservative attorney and GOP committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon, filed the lawsuit. The firm recently threatened litigation against San Bernardino County on behalf of faith organizations after the county banned all religious services that are not online.

The county later rescinded the order.

Last month, Newsom issued an executive order for Californians to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19. The governor referenced church gatherings among potential concerns after more than 70 congregants at a church in the Sacramento area tested positive for the virus.

The lawsuit comes as the U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in support of a Mississipi church that was fined $500 per person after holding parking lot worship services where congregants stayed in their vehicles.

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