A priest locked in an extended struggle with the state of California won a major victory Thursday after a judge temporarily suspended coronavirus restrictions on in-person worship.
A California superior court ruled that state restrictions constituted "a total and complete ban of indoor religious services" in many parts of the state. Judge Gregory Pulskamp suspended the restrictions pending a full trial.
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"These restrictions are arguably harsher than any other set of restrictions considered by the courts in all of the cases cited by the parties in this action," Pulskamp wrote in the decision.
Attorneys for Father Trevor Burfitt successfully argued that the Supreme Court's recent decisions in favor of religious institutions meant that California's restrictions could not stand. Religious institutions could not be treated differently than secular essential businesses, they said.
"Our challenge is to any restrictions on houses of worship that are not applied to essential businesses," Burfitt's attorney Christopher Ferrara from the Thomas More Society told the judge during oral arguments. "The Supreme Court heard all those same arguments and were not persuaded that they had anything to do with the constitutionality of restrictions on houses of worship."
The victory adds to a string of triumphs for religious institutions taking state leaders to court over coronavirus restrictions. The judge's decision drew heavily on a Supreme Court ruling in favor of a coalition of Orthodox Jewish groups and an appeals court decision in favor of a California Pentecostal church. Both decisions found that strict coronavirus restrictions on religious groups are unconstitutional and state authorities could not treat indoor religious gatherings more harshly than similar indoor secular gatherings.
"It doesn’t matter how severe the pandemic is. It is a problem especially for people of a certain age subset," Ferrara said. "That is beside the point. The Supreme Court made that clear. No matter the severity of the pandemic, religious activity must be given the same treatment as secular activity."
The Newsom administration, which did not respond to a request for comment, argued that restrictions are based on risk, not social value. The state's attorney said that other activities are not being favored over worship but are being treated differently because they have a "different risk profile."
"The plaintiff is a priest, not an epidemiologist, so he cannot fairly judge the spread of asymptomatic spread," the attorney said, pointing out that other churches would experience the same problem if the state removed all limits on indoor worship.
Los Angeles County fined Burfitt's church in October for allegedly violating COVID restrictions after local authorities saw individuals leaving the church dressed in prayer veils. The church also claimed that agents returned days after levying the fine to threaten the church with more citations.