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SSPX priest in California prevails in challenge to COVID closure order

Federal and state judges approve permanent injunctions in two cases, barring the targeting of houses of worship over COVID-19.

Fr. Trevor Burfitt preaches on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity May 30 at Our Lady of the Angels Church in Arcadia, Calif. Father Burfitt won his lawsuit challenging California’s restrictions on in-person worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: YouTube / Our Lady of the Angels)

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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About Joseph M. Hanneman 73 Articles
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.

13 Comments

  1. Notice that it was the much maligned SSPX which brought about this result. It was not Bishop Gomez nor Bishop McElroy (stop laughing). If you want to know why so many people continue to follow groups like the SSPX, look no further than this case.

    • Yes, the Catholic bishops in California, as in so many dioceses around the country, were conspicuous by their absence.

    • I would also add that the SSPX has fought for our rights. Gomez, barron and the other prelates of this diocese are weak and feckless, no courage of thier convictions, this speaks to their lack of faith and leadership.

    • I kept getting lost in front of the same SSPX church about three or four times. I finally just decided to go in, thanking God must have a reason for this. I attended mass within that week, and even despite the ridiculous lockdowns, the irony is that now for about 15 months, I have had the most exponentially increasing spiritual growth and epiphanies on spiritual warfare, along with their ‘cousin church’ organization of FSSP and their exorcist priest Father Ripperger’s prayers. I attended “modern” Catholic churches all of my life, but it never felt complete… until I attended the traditional Latin mass, and ESPECIALLY the importance of the sacrament of CONFESSION to get BACK into STATE of GRACE. The exorcist father RIPPERGER said every time you go to confession to a priest that has full authority, it is in itself a minor exorcism. This is like cleansing layers and layers of many years of sins and weakness in one’s relationship with Jesus Christ and Father God. All of the SSPX & FSSP priests (of both of these organizations) only use the ANCIENT CHURCH RITES, all PRE-VATICAN II. These priests are WELL AWARE of how post-Vatican II altered or shockingly removed exorcisms with him even baptismal prayers. This is actually a very big deal to your SOUL. if you try it, both SSPX or FSSP… You can literally be saving your soul. I actually attend both churches, but 90% of the time I go to the SSPX Catholic Church. It’s absolutely incredible what a difference it makes.

      • God Bless Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Bishop Anthony de Castro Mayer for preserving to insure Pope St. Pius V The Roman Pontiff who codified the Traditional Latin Mass to be the norm “in perpetuity” (in the Apostolic Constitution “Quo Primum” of July 14, 1570) and gave us the society FSSPX….”Rome Must Return To Tradition”.

  2. Mr. Karamazov,
    I don’t disagree. However, it should be noted that the main reason why SSPX is so strong in Los Angeles is because FSSP and other similar Catholic groups have not launched many parishes in the Archdiocese.

    • The FSSP to my knowledge must be invited into the diocese, they get permission, no financial support. They raise thier own support, but pay an assessment to the diocese. The SSPX are to my knowledge “free agents” and can act with less hindrances.

    • FSSP does nothing of resistance..In other areas of the country they don’t even go to Diocesan meetings or try to influence other priests
      Bishop or diocese… I cannot say what I would like about them… However their father is Lefebvre also…
      ..

      • A.D, To say Lefebvre is their father is a great honor. Today many experts are realizing Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was right all along. Today things are being said against Vatican ll that Lefebvre being precautions never said. One of the greats of the Church predicted Lefebvre would one day be declared a Doctor of the Church. Through God the Holy Ghost, Lefebvre said and wrote only the TRUTH in a perfect manner. I wish Pope Benedict XVl would have also removed the ex-communication from Lefebvre, it would have opened the doors for his cause for canonization. I imagine him being declared Patron Saint against error in the Church founded by Christ.

  3. To be fair, Archbishop Cordileone has not been silent on this issue.
    Our thanks are due to those who brought this case to court and the legal professionals who fought it.

  4. Anyone who knows me knows I have zero love lost for the SSPX, but I have to commend this priest for standing up to Governor Gavin Nuisance. It’s little wonder why Catholics are floundering when their leaders are seen taking their marching orders from the State.

    The Catholic Church is big and powerful. The bishops could have done so much good for people of all faiths had they taken the correct stand at the start of this pandemic. They have been an embarrassment to those who love freedom, and disasters as spiritual guides.

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