Churches Wrestle $2M From Gavin Newsom Over COVID Lockdowns

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

The State of California has agreed to pay more than $2 million to a San Diego church and a Catholic priest who challenged Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom’s unconstitutional COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, which violated the Christian leaders’ religious freedom. In two separate settlements, the state agreed to pay $1.6 million to South Bay United Pentecostal Church and $550,000 to Catholic Priest Father Trevor Burfitt. Judges also granted permanent injunctions to protect their religious freedom rights.

“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,” Charles LiMandri, a special counsel at the Thomas More Society who represented South Bay, said in a statement on the settlement. “The permanent injunctions in these cases uphold and protect one of the most cherished principles of our republic: The Free Exercise of Religion.”

“Restrictions on churches cannot be more severe than restrictions on retail. We are pleased with the final results in these two important cases,” Paul Jonna, another South Bay lawyer, added.

South Bay challenged Newsom’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy,” which lifted some COVID-19 restrictions but treated religious services more harshly than retail and dine-in restaurants. The church’s challenge ultimately prevailed when the Supreme Court ordered the lower court to reconsider the case according to the precedent in Tandon v. Newsom (2021). In that case, the Supreme Court overruled the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, granting an injunction allowing in-home prayer meetings.

The Burfitt case, meanwhile, paved the way for Tandon. Father Burfitt challenged Newsom’s Blueprint and Judge Gregory Pulskamp issued a preliminary injunction in the priest’s favor, ruling that the Blueprint had failed to treat houses of worship in a manner “equal to the favored classes of entities” referred to as “essential businesses.”

Thomas More Society lawyer Christopher Farrah cited that injunction while celebrating California’s ultimate capitulation to Burfitt’s religious liberty claim.

“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,” Farrah noted. “If favored businesses are allowed 100% occupancy during a pandemic, so must churches be allowed.”

LiMandri and Jonna are currently representing Grace Community Church Pastor John MacArthur, who is still fighting COVID-19 injunctions against the church.

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These hefty settlements send a powerful warning to governors like Newsom. Violations of religious freedom will not be taken lightly. These two cases have cost Newsom’s government more than $2 million, and they likely won’t be the last.