GOP lawyer fights California governor on stay-at-home orders

FILE - In this April 24, 2017, file photo, attorney Harmeet Dhillon speaks during a news conference in San Francisco. The lawyer leading the fight against California's stay-at-home orders has a long history of taking on free speech and civil rights cases. Dhillon has filed more than a dozen lawsuits challenging pieces of Gov. Gavin Newsom's stay-at-home orders. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
FILE - In this April 24, 2017, file photo, attorney Harmeet Dhillon speaks during a news conference in San Francisco. The lawyer leading the fight against California's stay-at-home orders has a long history of taking on free speech and civil rights cases. Dhillon has filed more than a dozen lawsuits challenging pieces of Gov. Gavin Newsom's stay-at-home orders. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Long before Harmeet Dhillon became the leader of the legal fight against California's stay-at-home order, she was a new elementary school student in North Carolina uncomfortable because she didn't know the Christian prayer her classmates recited every morning.

She told her mother, who had studied the Constitution for her citizenship test after the Sikh family emigrated to the United States from India. Her mother spoke to the principal about the legality of having public school students reciting a prayer.

The school changed its policy, Dhillon said. That moment was her initial lesson in the First Amendment that four decades later would be one of the underpinnings for more than a dozen lawsuits she helped to file over the coronavirus-induced order in California that closed businesses, churches and beaches, restricted people's movements and produced record high unemployment.

During the Trump presidency, Dhillon, 51, has emerged as one of California’s most prominent Republican voices, appearing regularly on Fox News and suing the state’s Democratic leaders to block what she believes to be government overreach. She is one of California’s two elected members of the Republican National Committee, and she’s a co-chair of “Women for Trump” that is part of the president’s reelection campaign.

While Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has started relaxing restrictions on his stay-at-home mandate that took effect March 19, Dhillon has no plans to stop filing lawsuits.

“Until we have some guardrails around this governor, or future governors, and their behavior and their ability to violate our civil rights, we are not going to stop,” she said in a recent interview. “It's unacceptable.”

Dhillon has brought cases on behalf of small business owners, beachgoers, hairstylists and churches. Most say their free speech and other rights were unnecessarily trampled by Newsom's order. She has also filed lawsuits against the Democratic governors of New Jersey and Virginia over their restrictions on religious services.

Dhillon so far has yet to get a victory in court, however. Last week the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Newsom's ban on in-person religious gatherings. In another case, a judge denied Dhillon and other lawyers’ requests to block Newsom from closing Orange County beaches.