California Judge Slaps Down Newsom Ban on Church Gatherings

By Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Congressional Correspondent
HillFaith Founding Editor, Congressional Correspondent for The Epoch Times, FOIA Hall of Fame, Reaganaut, Okie/Texan.
December 11, 2020 Updated: December 13, 2020

California Superior Court Judge Gregory Pulskamp delivered a stinging rebuke of Gov. Gavin Newsom late on Dec. 10, ruling against “all COVID-19 restrictions that fail to treat houses of worship equal to the favored class” of businesses such as Walmart and movie production houses.

The case of Father Trevor Burfitt v. Gavin Newsom was brought by attorneys for the Thomas More Society on behalf of Father Trevor Burfitt and parishes in San Bernadino, Los Angeles, Kern, and San Diego counties. Those parishes, as well as Protestant, Jewish, and other religious groups were barred from holding indoor gatherings of any kind.

The judge singled out Newsom’s recently issued “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” and “Regional Stay at Home Order” as failing to satisfy the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom of worship and practice because they aren’t applied equally and in the least restrictive manner required to achieve an essential public interest.

“In this case, the restrictions are not ‘neutral’ and of ‘general applicability’ because they assign entities into disparate classifications, which results in religious activities being treated less favorably than comparable secular activities,” Pelskamp wrote in his decision.

“For example, the ‘Purple Tier’ of the ‘Blueprint for a Safer Economy,’ and the most recent ‘Regional Stay at Home Order,’ both impose a total ban on indoor religious services, while simultaneously permitting a wide range of secular indoor activities to varying degrees.

“Entities permitted to engage in indoor activities—also known as ‘essential businesses’ or ‘critical infrastructure’—include big-box retail stores, grocery stores, home improvement stores, hotels, airports, train stations, bus stations, movie production houses, warehouses, factories, schools, and a lengthy list of additional businesses.

“It is important to note that almost all of the entities that are allowed to host indoor operations do not engage in activity that is constitutionally protected, whereas houses of worship do.”

Thomas More Senior Counsel Chris Ferrara lauded the decision, saying, “after more than nine months of tyranny in the name of ‘containing the spread’ of a virus they have failed to contain, 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.”

“The Supreme Court’s decision in Brooklyn Diocese v. Cuomo has opened the way to the liberation of churches from the absurd and bigoted superstition that they are veritable death chambers threatening the entire population.

“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.”

The Stay Home Order came as California hospitals experienced significant increases in COVID-19, the disease caused by the CCP virus, also known as the novel coronavirus.

“COVID-19 continues to surge at alarming rates in California,” the order declared. “The Regional Stay Home Order, announced Dec. 3, 2020, adds restrictions in regions with less than 15 percent Intensive Care Unit (ICU) capacity.

“It prohibits gatherings of any size, closes operations except for critical infrastructure and retail, and requires 100 percent masking and physical distancing.”

The state’s ICU capacity presently ranges from a low of 1.9 percent in the San Joaquin Valley and 7.7 percent in Southern California to a high of 30.3 percent in Northern California.

In the original complaint that prompted Pulskamp’s order, the plaintiffs noted that:

“Under this unprecedented regime of executive tyranny, retail giants like Walmart and Costco are open while even the smallest churches are closed, along with thousands of small businesses selling many of the same products as the retail giants.

“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.

“One can enter a bookstore and browse for as long as one wishes, but one is forbidden to set foot in a church to worship God. 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.”

The Pulskamp decision isn’t a final disposition of the challenge to Newsom’s regulations, but state officials are to halt enforcement, pending a full trial on the merits, the judge said.

Religious liberty advocates were cheered by the decision. Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications at the Plano, Texas-based First Liberty Institute, told The Epoch Times on Dec. 11 that “officials must start to understand that the First Amendment is not suspended during a crisis. If anything, these are the times when we must fight even harder to preserve the freedoms and principles that bind us together.”

Dys added that “it’s time for government officials like Governor Newsom to leave churches alone to continue to do their part in helping Americans through this pandemic.”

A spokesman for Newsom couldn’t be reached for comment on the decision.

Contact Mark Tapscott at Mark.Tapscott@epochtimes.nyc

Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Congressional Correspondent
HillFaith Founding Editor, Congressional Correspondent for The Epoch Times, FOIA Hall of Fame, Reaganaut, Okie/Texan.