California is paying more than $2 million in legal fees after discriminating against places of worship during the coronavirus pandemic.
The state agreed to pay the fees stemming from two legal cases, South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom and Father Trevor Burfitt v. Newsom, that saw religious leaders take Gov. Gavin Newsom (D.) to court over shutdown orders that singled out places of worship. The United States District Court for the Southern District of California issued the two judgments after months of legal clashes between the Newsom administration and churches in the state. Father Trevor Burfitt, one of the plaintiffs, had won a victory in December as a judge suspended Newsom's restrictions pending a full trial.
In another major victory for religious institutions, Newsom's administration agreed to prohibitions on restrictions that treat religious gatherings more harshly than secular gatherings. Any lockdowns on religious services cannot exceed "the precautions imposed on other similar gatherings of similar risk," according to the district court's order.
Courts have repeatedly ruled in favor of religious institutions that challenged coronavirus restrictions. The most significant case came from the Supreme Court in a November ruling that struck down limits placed by New York governor Andrew Cuomo (D.) on synagogues and churches in the state. The rulings all have a common theme: Religious worship cannot be treated more harshly than other secular essential activities.
Attorneys for the Thomas More Society, which argued both cases in California, said the California decisions mark a turning point for religious liberty as the pandemic recedes.
"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," attorney Christopher Ferrara said. "If favored businesses are allowed 100 percent occupancy during a pandemic, so must churches be allowed."
Newsom's administration told the Washington Free Beacon that the settlements provided "clarity and certainty" about public health standards. They also touted the state's high vaccination numbers, saying their "decisions are based on what the science and data tell us."
"These settlements resolve the cases while providing clarity and certainty to the public around the public health standards applicable to places of worship following recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court," a spokesperson said. "California has led the nation in safely reopening because our decisions are based on what the science and data tell us, and we will continue to do so as we look beyond the Blueprint."