A small mostly Hispanic Christian congregation in La Habra Heights, a suburban municipality a little south of Los Angeles, has filed suit in federal court seeking relief from illegal official harassment and excessive, unjustified fines.
The harassment, according to Pastor Joe Garcia of World Aflame Ministries, is the work of La Habra Heights City Manager Fabiola Huerta and Juan Garcia, a private citizen who lives near the congregation’s rented meeting place.
One of the law firms representing World Aflame is actively involved in similar cases around the country and may also be the victim of Big Tech censorship. Repeated searches by HillFaith today on Google Search for the web site of Tyler & Bursch LLP were derailed to a search on Microsoft Bing for the single word, Tyler. (See accompanying screenshot).
The fines, which at the time the suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for Central California reached $3,000, were based on allegations the congregation was violating Gov. Gavin Newsom’s public health regulations issued to combat spread of the Covid-19 virus.
The suit cited inspections by the Los Angeles County Health Department and Sheriff’s Office that found the congregation in compliance with all existing orders.
“Defendants have repeatedly falsely accused Plaintiffs of violating health orders. Realizing that Plaintiffs were beyond reproach in complying with federal, state, county, and city laws and public health orders, Defendants decided to focus on local subjective noise ordinances to continue to harass and persecute Plaintiffs,” the Garcias contend in their lawsuit.
“The underlying issues giving rise to this action started with Defendant Juan Garcia, who lives near the church where Plaintiffs hold worship services,” the suit continues.
“In July 2020, after Plaintiffs moved their worship services outside to comply with COVID-19 health orders, Defendant Juan Garcia started yelling at church ushers and members and taking video and pictures of the church members on a weekly basis.
“Juan Garcia made complaints based on false allegations to the Los Angeles County Health Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which visited the church numerous times during worship services and found no legal violations.
“Juan Garcia also made and continues to make complaints based on false allegations to the City of La Habra Heights (the ‘City’). The City and Fabiola Huerta in her official capacity as city manager, erroneously gave credence to Garcia’s false accusations and unlawfully joined Juan Garcia in conspiring to harass, fine, and cite Plaintiffs, in spite of evidence that Plaintiffs are in full compliance with state and county health orders and with the La Habra Heights Municipal Code (‘LHHMC’).”
Huerta has also been spotted by congregants “lurking” in nearby bushes, according to the suit: “On that same day, September 27, 2020, Defendant Fabiola Huerta was spotted lurking behind bushes videotaping Church attendees during the Spanish worship service. Fabiola Huerta traveled to the Church in an unmarked, white SUV.”
The World Aflame suit is the latest in a steadily lengthening list of California congregations taking local and state officials to court and claiming administration of Newsom’s regulations has been done in a discriminatory manner in violation of the First Amendment.
In its suit, World Aflame affirmed that its congregants have “a sincerely and deeply held religious belief that it is essential for them as Christians to assemble and regularly gather in person for the teaching of God’s Word, prayer, worship, baptism, communion, and fellowship.
“This is based on scriptures from the Bible, including Hebrews 10:25, Acts 2:40-47, and Acts 5:40-42. These activities are primarily fulfilled in the gathering of the Church body for worship services at the same location on Sunday mornings and gathering for the Wednesday night bible studies.”
As HillFaith has previously reported, the most well-known congregation filing litigation against “absurdly detailed regulation” is the Grace Community Church led by nationally known conservative evangelical theologian John MacArthur.
Such cases are not limited to the Golden State, however, as churches appear to have been singled out in numerous other states as well. Congressional aides should not be surprised if 2021 sees a strong push on Capitol Hill to restrain state and local officials from using public health regulations to discriminate against Christian churches.
And don’t be surprised if that push isn’t combined with the even stronger campaign on the Hill to stop Big Tech’s censorship of views that fail to meet the approval of First Amendment-killing executives and employees of Twitter, Facebook, and other Silicon Valley giants.
“It is unconscionable to think that public officials’ alleged fear over COVID-19 has been so overblown that a small church who is complying with all state and county health guidelines is considered a ‘nuisance’ by city officials,” attorney Robert Tyler said in a statement announcing the suit.
“The attack on churches under the guise of COVID-19 has gone too far, and for too long. This should be a wake-up call to people of faith,” he said.
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