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California Pastor Wants To Take Case Against COVID-19 Restrictions To Supreme Court

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The U.S. is reporting a record number of new coronavirus cases, yet some state and local officials trying to stop the spread are facing angry pushback, including from churches. They're filing court cases arguing COVID-19 restrictions are unconstitutional, hoping they end up in the Supreme Court, where a potential Justice Amy Coney Barrett might cast the deciding vote. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports the story of one traveling minister.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Pastor Rob McCoy recently kicked off a Sunday service at Candlelight Fellowship Church in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, near the Montana border.

ROB MCCOY: I have a court hearing tomorrow morning at 9:45, and I can't think of a better place to be for my last day in freedom than Coeur d'Alene.

BOLTON: McCoy was invited to speak by Candlelight's Pastor Rob Van Noy as he was hospitalized for COVID-19. McCoy didn't just lead the service in the pastor's absence. He also talked about his court case against health officials in Ventura County, Calif., where he leads his own congregation. McCoy's church, Godspeak Calvary Chapel, has been in open defiance of county and state COVID-19 health restrictions for months. Churches across the country have taken notice and are inviting McCoy to speak.

MCCOY: I haven't spoken in any churches where there's social distancing or masks that I recall. These are mostly churches that are in defiance, and I'm coming to encourage them.

BOLTON: McCoy and his lawyer are pushing back against public health officials and the data they're using. On the congregation's YouTube channel, he argues the coronavirus is not as deadly as public health experts say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCOY: We just started doing a nightly broadcast at 7. We've had no less than 10 doctors, two psychologists. We've gone through the county data.

BOLTON: He claims that COVID deaths are being inflated in an effort to curtail First Amendment rights, including the free exercise of religion. To be clear, there is wide agreement among public health experts that the virus can easily spread in settings such as worship services, where people sit close to each other, sing, hug and shake hands.

Professor of law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis John Inazu says churches across the country are, by and large, following public health restrictions. But he says some, like Godspeak, are legally challenging them, hoping to get all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

JOHN INAZU: There are at least some litigants who are thinking that a Justice Barrett on the court would make the court more prone to review some of these cases.

BOLTON: The Supreme Court has declined to hear two cases out of California and Nevada that argued health restrictions violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Inazu says the court's more liberal justices and Chief Justice John Roberts have given a large amount of deference to public health officials. Roberts wrote an opinion to accompany his deciding 5-4 vote to deny hearing one of the cases this summer. He wrote that public health can treat religion differently in some cases.

INAZU: He pointed out that singing and other characteristics might distinguish churches from other kinds of entities that were facing restrictions.

BOLTON: However, Inazu says these court cases aren't just about whether health restrictions can be applied differently to churches. They are seen by some as just a piece of a larger political battle.

MCCOY: We have hand sanitizer, but you can't fellowship six feet apart, and you can't worship when you're muzzled.

BOLTON: Back in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Pastor McCoy told congregants their state's more relaxed measures to control the spread of COVID-19 could change if they don't vote for staunchly conservative candidates.

MCCOY: As soon as you leave here, pick up the phone and get busy. And then start contributing to every campaign you can think of. That's the answer. God bless you guys.

(APPLAUSE)

BOLTON: McCoy says conservative churches need to be more involved in politics and encourage their members to get to the voting booth.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Columbia Falls, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.