The state of California will never again be able to target Our Lady of the Angels Church with a ban on Holy Mass due to COVID-19 under a permanent injunction in a priest’s lawsuit against California Gov. Gavin C. Newsom.
Fr. Trevor Burfitt of the Society of St. Pius X, and the Thomas More Society sued Newsom in September 2020, challenging the state’s ban on indoor worship as a violation of constitutionally protected freedom of religion. California Superior Court Judge Gregory Pulskamp issued a temporary injunction against California’s COVID restrictions on Dec. 10, 2020. A permanent injunction signed by Judge Pulskamp on May 27 bars the state from ever imposing discriminatory restrictions on houses of worship in an effort to control COVID-19. The case is Father Trevor Burfitt v. Gavin Newsom et al.
A June 1 permanent injunction signed in U.S. District Court in a case brought against Newsom by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, Calif., provides a second significant victory for the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based civil rights law firm, and churches shut down during COVID-19. Under the federal and state injunctions in the two cases, the state of California agreed to pay $2.15 million in “prevailing party” attorney fees, including $550,000 in the Burfitt case.
“The lesson to government bureaucrats is to honor and respect our cherished free exercise of religion,” said Paul M. Jonna, an attorney who represented Fr. Burfitt and South Bay United Pentecostal Church in the cases. “Courts will uphold the Constitution, and experienced lawyers will get involved to vindicate these important rights.”
Fr. Burfitt, prior of Our Lady of the Angels in Arcadia, Calif., oversees SSPX mission churches in Kern, San Bernardino, San Diego and Los Angeles counties. In October 2020, Our Lady of the Angels was issued two $500 citations by Los Angeles County health inspectors after a group of parishioners was observed exiting the rear of the church. Jonna said government COVID surveillance of places of worship is also effectively banned under the court order.
“The settlement will prevent future harassment because it makes clear that the restrictions we saw before will never again see the light of day,” Jonna told Catholic World Report. Jonna is a partner with the California law firm LiMandri & Jonna LLP.
Fr. Burfitt said the permanent injunction will benefit all of the faithful.“I am very grateful for all who made this possible,” he said. “The tyrant was shown to have overstepped his power. Now the people and all clergy should capitalize on this injunction, a protection for the years to come.”
Under the terms of the final judgment in the Burfitt case, California could impose COVID-related attendance restrictions at churches only under certain metrics on COVID daily case rates, hospital admissions and intensive-care bed capacity. Such restrictions would have to be “identical to, or at least as favorable as, restrictions imposed on other similar gatherings of similar risk,” the ruling reads. Under the original California regulations, churches were shut down while big-box retail stores remained open.
Christopher Ferrara of the Thomas More Society, lead attorney on the Burfitt case, said the temporary injunction issued in December telegraphed what the U.S. Supreme Court would rule in a number of COVID-related cases. “The injunction in Burfitt was the first of its kind in the country, anticipating what the Supreme Court would later hold definitively, that houses of worship must receive the same treatment as the most favored secular comparators,” Ferrara said in a statement. “If favored businesses are allowed 100-percent capacity during a pandemic, so must churches be allowed.”
On April 26, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a ruling against South Bay United Pentecostal Church by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Supreme Court order effectively ended California’s attempts to control church attendance and parishioner behavior, even though the state abandoned its COVID church restrictions three days prior. In February 2021, the high court struck down California’s ban on indoor worship services in a victory for South Bay United. The church and the Thomas More Society had been before the U.S. Supreme Court three times over the past year in the case.
A final injunction in that case was signed June 1 by U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant, with the same stipulations used in the Burfitt case. The term “similar gatherings of similar risk” used in the order relies on definitions set forth in four Supreme Court rulings, Tandon v. Newsom, South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, Harvest Rock Church Inc. v. Newsom and Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo. “This order does not not prohibit the state from issuing recommendations, best practices, precautions, or other measures, as long as such promulgations make clear to the public that they are voluntary and not enforceable,” Judge Bashant wrote.
“The South Bay case represents an unprecedented three trips to the United States Supreme Court in a one-year period, which resulted in a landmark decision that opened up the churches in California for 40 million people,” said Charles S. LiMandri, another attorney in the case. “The permanent injunctions in these cases uphold and protect one of the most cherished principles of our republic: the free exercise of religion.”
“The cost to the state of California would have been higher if the cases had continued, Jonna said. “The price tag for these cases is not insignificant – and the burden can be avoided if state officials honor and respect fundamental constitutional rights,” he said, adding: “We are pleased with the terms of these permanent injunctions, which ensure that the government will never again be able to impose these discriminatory restrictions on churches.”
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