Los Angeles 03-22-2021 – A church has reopened a lawsuit against Governor Newsom and San Diego County over COVID-19-related restrictions that had threatened it with criminal sanctions.
Abiding Place Ministries, located in Campo, CA, had initially filed its lawsuit one year ago after the County threatened it with criminal penalties even if the church conducted drive-in worship services in lieu of gathering in-person. But when the state and county modified their orders to allow drive-in worship services, then again to allow in-person services subject to fewer restrictions, the church was forced to dismiss its lawsuit. Under the legal doctrine of “mootness,” courts have long held that once government terminates unlawful policies, litigants no longer have legal standing to seek a legal remedy because there no longer exists a live “case or controversy” to adjudicate.
That changed On March 8, 2021, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, that for purposes of Article III standing, “nominal damages provide the necessary redress for a completed violation of a legal right.” Because Abiding Place Ministries suffered the violation of a completed right when the church was ordered not to hold drive-in services, the Supreme Court decision entitles it to reopen its lawsuit to recover nominal damages.
As alleged in the Third Amended Complaint filed by Freedom X Monday in San Diego federal court (case no. 20-00683), state and county officials responded to the pandemic “arbitrarily, heavy-handedly, and seemingly without reservation or respect for basic constitutional norms and ‘moved the goalposts on pandemic-related sacrifices for months, adopting new benchmarks that always seem[ed] to put restoration of liberty just around the corner.’”
Although the church cannot obtain money damages or an order compelling the government to modify its policies, a judgment in favor of the church nevertheless would be more than symbolic. It would be a victory for the First Amendment, entitling the church to recover its attorneys fees and legal costs, and sending a message to the defendants that a total ban on church assemblies is unconstitutional.