California has agreed to pay more than $2 million in legal fees in a settlement with churches that questioned the state's COVID closure orders as a violation of religious freedom.

Religious Freedom Challenged in California

Aside from the monetary settlement, California also agreed not to impose stricter coronavirus restrictions on church gatherings compared to retail establishments.

According to U.S. News, lawyers for a San Diego-area Pentecostal church took their challenge regarding pandemic closure against the state to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The $2 million deal was approved Tuesday, June 1, by a federal judge after the lawyers of the religious group delivered the challenge against the state to the Supreme Court three times and won.

Attorney Paul Jonna noted that the settlement includes a permanent injunction in line with Supreme Court rulings that found restrictions on churches cannot exceed those on retail business. 

Jonna also questioned why the state could not allow churches to have 50 percent capacity on worships while allowing Costco to 50 percent capacity.

Jonna noted that it is questionable why California allowed other establishments to open and continue their operations but ordered to shut down churches completely.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is poised to lift all restrictions on June 15. Gavin Newsom's decision came after the case rate of COVID in the state has plummeted since a deadly winter surge that forced people to stay at their homes and rise in the vaccination rates.

Newsom's office issued a statement emphasizing that the governor put the health of Californians first when he imposed closure orders, Centre Daily reported. 

The statement also noted that the settlements provide clarity on how public health standards can be applicable also to churches.

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California Gavin Newsom is the First Governor to Issue a Statewide Stay-Home Order

California Governor Gavin Newsom was the first governor who issued a statewide stay-home order during the start of the COVID pandemic in March 2020. 

But a number of his closure orders and modifications that allowed certain businesses to open at different capacities were challenged not only in the state but also in federal courts. The orders in maintaining the safety of the public were generally upheld until religious groups won a string of victories. 

The victories came after the makeup in Supreme Court last year when liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away and was replaced by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Associated Press reported.

Jonna shared that while the settlements only apply to restrictions issued for the ongoing pandemic, he does not believe that the state of California would impose harsher restrictions on churches in the future. He said it is because of the recent Supreme Court rulings.

Meanwhile, the settlements also involved federal lawsuits brought by South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista. A Catholic priest in Bakersfield, Father Trevor Burfitt also filed a lawsuit in Kern County Superior Court.

California will be paying lawyers for the Thomas More Society, which is a conservative public interest law firm, $1.6 million in legal fees in the South Bay case, while the other $550,000 is intended for the Burfitt case.

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