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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