LOS ANGELES - A Catholic priest is suing Governor Gavin Newsom for allegedly "violating religious rights" by shutting down indoor church services across California amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The lawsuit was filed last week in California Superior Court against Newsom and 19 other state, county and municipal officials on behalf of Father Trevor Burfitt, who oversees mission churches in Kern, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Los Angeles Counties.
"These restrictions imposed and enforced by Newsom and the other named officials in the name of COVID-19 have severely obstructed the rights of Burfitt and others throughout California, despite the guarantees promised in the state Constitution," Burfitt's attorney's wrote in a press release.
The lawsuit argues that Newsom continues to levy strict limits or outright prohibitions on public and private worship activities, which continue to be designated as "nonessential," while liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, and the Hollywood movie industry are allowed to operate practically unhindered in comparison.
The filing states that "Newsom’s lockdown was originally supposed to be only a temporary emergency measure. However, nearly seven months later it appears that, absent judicial intervention, there will never be a 'reopening' to normal, pre-COVID activity, despite incontestable facts – including California’s own data…showing that the lockdown is no longer warranted and is causing far more harm than good."
The complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.
The lawsuit argues three key constitutional points of order, which are written as follows:
1. Under the California Constitution a public health “emergency” cannot be whatever the governor says is an emergency, nor end only when he says so - no matter how long it continues or how dubious the rationale for its prolongation.
2. The California Constitution does not permit the state’s governor to impose any “emergency” restriction of fundamental rights that he deems appropriate. Rather, any restrictions or measures that the governor imposes must be narrowly tailored, limited in time, and serve interests of the highest order, as opposed to any goal that the governor wishes to achieve.
3. There cannot be absolute judicial deference to the exercise of a governor’s purported “emergency” powers. Rather, there must be a judicial inquiry into the factual basis for their invocation, their limits, and their continuation, with the burden of proof being on the state at all times. To hold otherwise would allow tyranny to be exercised by the executive branch and incur a total abandonment of the separation of powers intrinsic to California’s constitutional scheme.
On July 13, Newsom ordered the immediate reclosure of houses of worship in counties on the state's COVID-19 "watch list," which included 38 counties and roughly 86% of California's population.
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