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Calif. priest sues Gov. Newsom over state worship restrictions

Calif. priest sues Gov. Newsom over state worship restrictions

California Gov. Gavin Newsom | Facebook/Gavin Newsom

A Catholic priest is suing California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials over shutdown restrictions that he argues interfere with his religious freedom.

Father Trevor Burfitt,  who oversees mission churches in the Counties of Kern, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Los Angeles, filed the lawsuit in California Superior Court for Kern County on Sept. 29, arguing that Newsom’s lockdown measures have “radically and severely restricted” his ministry.

Specific objections included a “severe occupancy restriction on houses of worship” that was “not imposed on favored businesses,” the ban in indoor worship in various counties with high rates of COVID-19 infection, the mandate requiring a social distance of six feet and the face mask mandate.

“It is now beyond reasonable dispute that, absent judicial intervention, Newsom intends to continue indefinitely a massive and baseless suspension of the constitutional rights of the plaintiff and nearly 40,000,000 other residents of the State of California,” the lawsuit stated. 

The complaint went on to argue that the restrictive measures placed on the ministries that Burfitt oversees are hypocritical in nature and unfairly target his and other houses of worship.

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“One can march shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of shouting, singing, and chanting political protesters — many without masks — but one is forbidden to be closer than six feet to a fellow worshipper or to sing a religious hymn or intone Gregorian chant during Holy Mass,” the suit continued. 

“One is allowed to sit in various ‘essential’ offices together with fellow office workers all day long, five days a week, but the same people are forbidden to occupy the pews inside their ‘non-essential’ churches for even one hour on a Sunday.”

Burfitt is being represented by the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm that takes on religious freedom cases. 

Thomas More Society Special Counsel Paul Jonna said in a statement released Wednesday that Newsom “continues to levy strict limits or outright prohibitions on public and private worship activities, which continue to be designated as ‘nonessential,’ while liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, and the Hollywood movie industry are allowed to operate unhindered.”

“California’s residents are apparently expected to live their lives behind makeshift ‘face coverings’ while maintaining an arbitrary distance of six feet from everyone they encounter outside their homes,” continued Jonna.

“And to complete Newsom’s despotic mandates, anyone who declines to obey faces criminal and civil penalties. This is unconstitutional and a blatant violation of the rights guaranteed by California’s constitution.”

To curb the spread of the coronavirus, California has enacted several controversial measures for certain counties that have a high infection rate.

These have included prohibiting indoor worship, singing during services, mandatory facemasks, which have to legal action being taken by several California pastors and churches.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled 2-1 last week to reject a request from multiple churches challenging California’s COVID-19 shutdown orders.

The panel majority concluded that Harvest Rock Church, Inc. and Harvest International Ministry, Inc. were not being unfairly treated compared to similar, secular entities.

“The Orders apply the same restrictions to worship services as they do to other indoor congregate events, such as lectures and movie theaters. Some congregate activities are completely prohibited in every county, such as attending concerts and spectating sporting events,” read the panel majority.

“We also conclude that Harvest Rock failed to demonstrate that an injunction pending appeal is in the public interest. The Supreme Court considered and declined a similar request to enjoin application of California’s Orders as to worship services in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom …”

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