9th Circuit Denies Writ of Mandamus for Church Challenging COVID-19 Capacity Restrictions

The Ninth Circuit on Friday denied an urgent petition for a writ of mandamus by South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Bishop Arthur Hodges III seeking a judgment that a Southern District of California decision to delay injunctive relief absent an evidentiary hearing in a free exercise case against the state was misguided. As a result, capacity restrictions on houses of worship in the Ninth Circuit currently under Tier 1 COVID-19 restrictions will remain at 25%, per statewide guidance.

The Supreme Court of the United States entered judgment on South Bay United Pentecostal Church, et al. v. Newsom, et al. on Feb. 5, which enjoined the state of California from enforcing a prohibition on indoor worship services taking place in Tier 1 regions — those with the highest COVID-19 positivity rates — pursuant to statewide restrictions; however, the decision did not enjoin the state from enforcing capacity restrictions on indoor worship services in Tier 1 regions. In fact, the day after the judgment, California revised its COVID-19 restrictions to allow indoor worship houses in Tier 1 a 25% capacity limit, keeping Tier 2 at 25% capacity and 3 and 4 at 50%.

However, the Supreme Corut decision left open an opportunity for the plaintiffs to further plead that the capacity restrictions on houses of worship were not imposed on “secular activities that pose similar dangers of spreading COVID-19” and thus in violation of the right to free exercise of religion, the court explained.

The plaintiffs took this opportunity, moving for an emergency temporary restraining order in the Southern District of California on March 11 to prevent the enforcement of the 25% capacity restriction, hoping for an injunction before the kickoff of Easter Holy Week on March 28, Palm Sunday. The district court, however, set the temporary restraining order hearing for March 29 by the plaintiffs’ request, as they initially did not bring any new evidence in their motion.

The district court found that it could not grant any injunctive relief without an evidentiary hearing, effectively denying the temporary restraining order, which the plaintiffs appealed.

In its denial, the Ninth Circuit emphasized that granting mandamus “is a drastic and extraordinary remedy reserved for really extraordinary causes,” citing Cheney v. U.S. Dist. Ct. for D.C.

It found that the district court did not err in its decision to delay granting relief until a proper evidentiary hearing, given that “both parties represented that additional evidence is forthcoming.”

“This was not an abuse of discretion,” the circuit court said of the district’s judgment, “notwithstanding the unfortunate timing,” referencing Easter Sunday’s imminence.

This judgment came on the heels of another Ninth Circuit denial of “extraordinary remedy” to petitioners seeking an emergency injunction regarding state COVID-19 restrictions, particularly those imposed on household gatherings for Bible studies and communal home worship, as well as campaign events and businesses, as Law Street Media reported. The Thursday decision sought to align with Supreme Court precedent, according to the appellate panel, and rejected the appellants’ contention that “any restrictions that have an incidental effect on religious conduct can be appropriately compared to restrictions on any secular conduct.”

South Bay and Bishop Hodges are represented by Limandri & Jonna LLP, Thomas More Society, and Dhillon Law Group Inc.