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SSPX parish in California freed from COVID-19 restrictions

Superior Court issues preliminary injunction in suit against Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Fr. Trevor Burfitt stands outside one of the Society of St. Pius X chapels under his charge. Fr. Burfitt secured a key victory in obtaining an injunction against California’s ban on indoor worship. (Photo courtesy of Thomas More Society)

County health inspectors can no longer surveil and harass worshippers at Our Lady of the Angels Church near Los Angeles or attempt to otherwise enforce California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 regulations that banned indoor Masses and other religious services, an attorney for the Thomas More Society says.

“All harassment should immediately cease, as the orders at issue were deemed unconstitutional and cannot be enforced,” attorney Paul M. Jonna told Catholic World Report. Jonna’s statements came hours after a California Superior Court judge issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of California’s COVID-19 ban against indoor religious services.

California Superior Court Judge Gregory Pulskamp ruled on Dec. 10 that Fr. Trevor Burfitt’s litigation against Gov. Newsom was likely to succeed with its argument that California’s COVID-19 regulations are a violation of constitutionally protected freedom of religion. Fr. Burfitt, prior of Our Lady of the Angels and other area churches belonging to the Society of Saint Pius X, sued Newsom and other California officials on Sept. 29, alleging violation of his rights under the California Constitution.

After Fr. Burfitt’s suit was filed, attorney Jonna said Los Angeles County food and garbage inspectors were sent to Our Lady of the Angels in Arcadia, Calif., to hand out citations for violations of California’s ban on indoor worship.

On Oct. 15, Los Angeles County environmental health specialists Alennie Del Rosario and Brenna Santiago issued two $500 citations to Our Lady of the Angels after they observed “approximately 11” parishioners leave the church “out the back door of the facility,” according to the Department of Public Health’s official inspection report. The agents tried to gain access to the church but were stopped by a security guard. The administrative citation was for failure to comply with a health officer’s order and interfering with the duties of a health officer.

At the time, Jonna said the fear of COVID-19 “has produced a despotic obsession among some governors with controlling houses of worship.” Fr. Burfitt, a priest of the Society of St. Pius X, oversees mission churches in Kern, San Bernardino, San Diego and Los Angeles counties.

“The harm to the plaintiff is self-evident,” Judge Pulskamp wrote in a six-page decision. “On the other hand, defendants have not shown that adding religious organizations to the long list of entities that are permitted indoor operations would negatively impact public health, assuming the same healthcare precautions were implemented.”

Pulskamp ruled that California’s COVID-19 regulations must face a judicial standard know as strict scrutiny because they are not neutral and of general applicability. As such, the court looks at whether the state could accomplish its health goals with solutions that are more narrowly tailored and less restrictive. He said he was not convinced that churches should be treated differently than big-box retail stores.

“…It appears that shoppers at Costco, Walmart, Home Depot., etc., may — and frequently do — congregate in numbers, proximity and duration that is very comparable to worshippers in houses of worship,” Polskamp wrote. “Defendants have not convincingly established that the health risks associated with houses of worship would be any different than ‘essential businesses’ or ‘critical infrastructure,’ assuming the same requirements of social distancing and the wearing of masks were applied across the board.”

Judge Pulskamp said he relied on recent rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court in the cases Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn vs. Cuomo and Harvest Rock Church vs. Newsom. Pulskamp said he “wholeheartedly agrees” with the high court’s New York decision that said, “But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

The judge described as “specious” the defendant’s argument that religious services can still be offered via television or on web-based platforms. Citing the Brooklyn diocese case, he wrote, “such remote viewing is not the same as personal attendance.”

In the original suit, Father Trevor Burfitt vs. Gavin Newsom, Jonna and the Thomas More Society said the California COVID-19 regulations “radically and severely restricted” the priest’s ministry. The required social-distance “bubble” of six feet around every person severely restricts conduct of Catholic worship, and the face-covering mandate “irrationally threatens individual health,” the suit said.

Thomas More Society special counsel Christopher Ferrara said the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Cuomo “opened the way to the liberation of churches from the absurd and bigoted superstition that they are veritable death chambers threatening the entire population. Not even hair salons, which by the services offered necessitate close personal contact, have been subjected to the onerous and barefaced biases heaped upon houses of worship.”

“After more than nine months of tyranny in the name of ‘containing the spread’ of a virus they have failed to contain, the gubernatorial dictators presiding over draconian lockdowns are running out of runway on their claim that churches are somehow more dangerous viral vectors than any of the litany of ‘essential businesses’ crowded with customers that they allow to operate at 100 percent capacity,” Ferrara said in a statement.

Judge Pulskamp set a case management conference for March 29, 2021.


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About Joseph M. Hanneman 80 Articles
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.

7 Comments

  1. God bless you for firmly standing your ground! Our faith is being victimised under the umbrella of so many antipathetic ideologies and uncogent reasons/excuses from the secular world. We cannot be complacent to anything that will reduce us to making mockery of our Catholic faith and doctrine, nor anything that will make us indirectly denounce our loving God, who created us with ultimate and undiluted love. We need to defend our faith unto death, like St. John de Baptist, and our own centuries martyrs. So, Fr. Trevor, you acted impressively. May our Redeemer and Saviour Jesus Christ, continue to protect you with His precious blood, and our Blessed Mother Mary with her virginal mantle. Amen

  2. Good for the SSPX priest in this instance. The sort of targeted discrimination against places of worship in California is very disturbing.

  3. If the “regular” Roman Catholic Bishops actually did their job, the SSPX would not exist, or need to exist.
    .
    I am not a huge fan of the SSPX, or “Traditionalist” communities, but good for them. And Father Burfitt, thank you.

    • Dear Kathryn, The SSPX and so called Traditionalist communities are keeping the Catholic faith alive. Without His Grace Archbishop Lefebvre holding to the Catholic faith of all time all you would have today are the “regular” bishops, the novus ordo clown mass, and closed down churches. Doesn’t really sound that “Catholic” does it after all?

  4. “After Fr. Burfitt’s suit was filed, attorney Jonna said Los Angeles County food and garbage inspectors were sent to Our Lady of the Angels in Arcadia, Calif., to hand out citations for violations of California’s ban on indoor worship.

    On Oct. 15, Los Angeles County environmental health specialists Alennie Del Rosario and Brenna Santiago issued two $500 citations to Our Lady of the Angels after they observed “approximately 11” parishioners leave the church “out the back door of the facility,” according to the Department of Public Health’s official inspection report. The agents tried to gain access to the church but were stopped by a security guard. The administrative citation was for failure to comply with a health officer’s order and interfering with the duties of a health officer.”

    The authority of these “health officers” is unconstitutional and therefore VOID. There is a book “Is Administrative Law Unlawful?” by Philip Hamburger. His short and relatively apparent answer to the question is “Yes.”

    The U.S. Constitution guarantees that the states will have a republican form of government. This implies and perhaps demands that all laws be made by the LEGISLATURE. This would preclude any delegation – which violates the separation of powers. The justice (or lack thereof) of any de facto law while of primary moral significance isn’t as important in the legal positivist “modern mind” as is the formal procedure of enactment. Even this low bar can’t be met beyond a reasonable doubt under current tyrannical arrangements.

    So much for our “education” system which “teaches” error. Ignorance is NOT bliss.

    Any lawsuit – while a nice gesture – isn’t necessary for “disobedience” of any unlawful “order.” The fact that it is presumed to be necessary is – again – a symptom of ignorance.

    However, there is some question about whether the security guard was acting morally. The question is whether the SSPX property was open to the public. If it was, then there couldn’t be any reason to turn anyone away unless perhaps they were somehow immorally disturbing others or there was probable evidence of criminal intent. It was possible (unless indicated otherwise) that the “officers” were there to pray and honestly identified/believed themselves as Catholics.

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