Priest Challenging California COVID Restrictions Rips Newsom Over Lakers Celebration

Californians can gather to celebrate the Lakers, but not Mass

California governor Gavin Newsom (D.) / Getty Images
October 14, 2020

A Catholic priest challenging California's lockdown rules says that religious believers deserve to be treated the same as Lakers fans, thousands of whom gathered in Los Angeles following its NBA title clincher.

Father Trevor Burfitt of Our Lady of the Angels Church said the chaotic celebrations that followed Sunday's NBA championship demonstrates the "biased and inequitable treatment" that local authorities and California Democratic governor Gavin Newsom have shown to his parishioners.

"Governor Newsom's endless shutdowns and discriminatory edicts are interfering in the worship by God's people, something that was expressly forbidden in the foundational documents of this nation and is echoed in the constitutions of states across the country," Burfitt said. "Governor Newsom's biased and inequitable treatment of the Church is piercing the souls of faithful Catholics, myself included."

Burfitt, who filed a lawsuit against Newsom to end the state's indefinite state of emergency in response to the coronavirus, contrasted the return of in-person services with the behavior exhibited by local fans. The massive—and violent—gatherings of Lakers fans saw clashes with police and at least 76 arrests as fans climbed on top of vehicles and threw glass bottles, rocks, and other objects at police officers. The police department said that more than 30 buildings were vandalized.

Newsom tweeted out a congratulatory message to the team on Sunday night. His statement failed to make any mention of the crowd sizes outside of the Lakers arena. In response to a request for comment, Newsom's office pointed to the governor's press conference on Monday where Newsom addressed the gathering.

"We saw some images last night that are a point of obvious concern as it relates to the transmission of the virus," Newsom said. "We just ask people to be cautious, to be mindful, at the same time they celebrate this historic victory."

A spokesman for Democratic mayor Eric Garcetti's office told the Washington Free Beacon that the mayor was grateful to the city's inhabitants who stayed home and celebrated. "Using occasions like this one to attack officers, vandalize businesses, and destroy property is unacceptable, and we will make sure the few people who engaged in this behavior face consequences for their actions," the spokesman said. He did not specifically mention any coronavirus restrictions nor address the crackdown on local churches.

Los Angeles County did not respond to a request for comment.

California's guidelines for combating the spread of coronavirus urged Californians to limit interactions with individuals outside of the household. It also called for mask wearing and social distancing. The state recently announced it would allow up to three families to gather together outdoors, provided the families are socially distanced and wearings masks. The governor's office also released a four-tiered system for reopening the state county-by-county in late August.

Those rules are overly prohibitive, especially as millions of Americans in other states have returned to worship safely, according to Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie, policy adviser with the Catholic Association. She said lawmakers were overtly discriminating against believers even as they tolerate mass gatherings and even violence at secular events.

"Although church attendance has been sharply restricted, ostensibly to slow the spread of coronavirus, thousands of people were allowed to gather together after the Lakers won the championship game. The Mass is essential to people of faith and can, with appropriate precautions, be conducted safely," Dr. Christie said. "When it comes to transmission, viruses don't discriminate between religious and secular gatherings. Sadly, the same can't be said for some state and local governments in California."

Fr. Burfitt is not the only man of the cloth who has challenged strict lockdown rules that apply to churches, even as businesses and social gatherings have been allowed to reopen. Grace Community Church, a megachurch, filed a suit after Los Angeles County authorities refused to allow it to return to in-person services. The suit contrasted the discrimination that houses of worship faced even as California Democrats welcomed and participated in Black Lives Matter protests that attracted tens of thousands of people with no regard for social distancing.