A California judge has blocked Gov. Gavin Newsom from enforcing pandemic-related restrictions on a Catholic priest and his Southern California parishes, holding that the public-health order discriminates against houses of worship.
Kern County Superior Court Judge Gregory Pulskamp issued a preliminary injunction Thursday preventing the state from enforcing novel coronavirus rules against indoor worship, finding that the state had failed to establish that health risks associated with church were greater than those for “essential businesses.”
Those businesses include “big-box retail stores, grocery stores, home-improvement stores, airports, train stations, bus stations, movie production houses, warehouses, factories, schools, and a lengthy list of additional businesses,” he said.
“The free exercise of religion clause in the California Constitution prohibits Defendants from treating religious activities worse than comparable secular activities,” Judge Pulskamp said in his ruling. “California’s current Covid-related restrictions do exactly that.”
Christopher Ferrara, special counsel for the Thomas More Society representing Father Burfitt, credited the U.S. Supreme Court’s Nov. 25 decision in Brooklyn Diocese v. Cuomo, in which the court ruled against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on houses of worship.
“The Supreme Court’s decision in Brooklyn Diocese v. Cuomo has opened the way to the liberation of churches from the absurd and bigoted superstition that they are veritable death chambers threatening the entire population,” said Mr. Ferrara in a statement.
He said that not even hair salons, which require much closer contact, “have been subjected to the onerous and barefaced biases heaped upon houses of worship.”
The court’s decision took issue with Mr. Newsom’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy and regional stay-at-home orders, which failed to treat churches in a way “equal to the favored class of entities.”
The ruling said that state officials had “not convincingly established that the health risks associated with houses of worship would be any different than ‘essential businesses’ or ‘critical infrastructure’.”
Father Burfitt, a member of the Society of St. Pius X, which celebrates the traditional Latin Mass and sacraments, oversees mission churches in Kern, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.
Judge Pulskamp said he “wholeheartedly agreed” with the statement that “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,” said the statement quoted in the decision. “Before allowing this to occur, we have a duty to conduct a serious examination of the need for such a drastic measure.”
Mr. Newsom’s latest rule, the regional stay-at-home order issued Dec. 3, allows shopping centers to operate indoors at 20% capacity and grocery stores at 35% capacity, but permits outdoor worship only.
Three of the state’s five regions are currently under the order — Southern California, San Joaquin Valley and Greater Sacramento — which goes into effect when a region’s hospital ICU capacity falls below 15%. Another five Bay Area counties have preemptively adopted the protocols.
The California Department of Health reported Friday an additional 35,468 daily cases, bringing the total case count to 1,485,703, and another 159 deaths for a state total of 20,622.
The next hearing on Burfitt v. Newsom is scheduled for March 29.