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Court blocks COVID-19 restrictions against California priest

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Unsplash/Kenny Luo

A court in California has granted a Catholic priest temporary relief from state restrictions on in-person worship aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

Judge Gregory Pulskamp of the Superior Court of California for the County of Kern granted a motion on Thursday for preliminary injunction for Father Trevor Burfitt, concluding that the restrictions treat churches worse than secular entities.

“The free exercise of religion clause in the California Constitution prohibits Defendants from treating religious activities worse than comparable secular activities. California's current Covid-related restrictions do exactly that,” ruled Pulskamp.

“This Court is not in a position to rewrite the restrictions or dictate to Defendants specifically how the restrictions may be cured. However, the Court is in a position to prohibit enforcement of the restrictions against Plaintiff pending trial, and rules accordingly.”

In late September, Burfitt, who oversees churches in the counties of Kern, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Los Angeles, filed suit against California over its restrictions.

Specifically, Burfitt took issue with the ban on strict occupancy limits placed on houses of worship, as well as a ban on indoor, in-person services while secular businesses deemed “essential” have looser standards.

Thomas More Society Special Counsel Christopher Ferrara, who helped represent Burfitt, said in a statement Thursday that he was “grateful” for the court decision.

“… the gubernatorial dictators presiding over draconian lockdowns are running out of runway on their claim that churches are somehow more dangerous viral vectors than any of the litany of ‘essential businesses’ crowded with customers that they allow to operate at 100% capacity,” stated Ferrara.

“Not even hair salons, which by the services offered necessitate close personal contact, have been subjected to the onerous and barefaced biases heaped upon houses of worship.”

Pulskamp drew from the United States Supreme Court decision Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Andrew Cuomo, in which the high court ruled 5-4 to block New York’s restrictions on houses of worship.

“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” read the Per Curiam decision.

“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.”

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer authored one of the dissents to the ruling, concluding that “the State has countervailing arguments based upon health, safety, and administrative considerations that must be balanced against the applicants’ First Amendment challenges.”

“New York will, and should, seek ways of appropriately recognizing the religious interests here at issue without risking harm to the health and safety of the people of New York. But I see no practical need to issue an injunction to achieve these objectives,” he added.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court granted Harvest Rock Church of Pasadena temporary relief from state restrictions on gatherings, vacating lower court decisions against the church. 

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