Gov. Gavin Newsom with a sign language interpreter at a press conference in July. Courtesy of the governor’s office.

A Catholic priest who oversees churches in four California counties, including San Diego, is suing Gov. Gavin Newsom and 19 other state, county and municipal officials, alleging COVID-19 restrictions on places of worship are unconstitutional.

Father Trevor Burfitt contends in his court papers that public health guidelines restricting worship activities are “no longer warranted” and “causing far more harm than good.”

Among the restrictions contested by Burfitt are bans on indoor worship, occupancy restrictions, social distancing requirements — which “precludes proper conduct of Catholic worship” — and face covering mandates, which “not only radically interferes with Catholic worship in numerous ways but irrationally threatens individual health…,” according to his 77-page complaint filed Sept. 29 in Kern County Superior Court.

Defendants named in the suit include Newsom, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, San Diego County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore and San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit. The suit also names officials in Los Angeles, Kern and San Bernardino counties, where Burfitt also oversees mission churches.

Burfitt is the prior of Saint John Bosco Mission in San Diego, according to the complaint.

Since the pandemic began, similar lawsuits have been filed by religious leaders and institutions across the state, including South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, which challenged the state’s restrictions on church attendance in a case that went before the Supreme Court in May and was rejected 5-4.

Like many of the other lawsuits, Burfitt challenges places of worship’s status as “non-essential” and alleges Newsom has arbitrarily deemed other businesses and industries as critical.

Paul Jonna, one of Burfitt’s attorneys, said in a statement, “It is now beyond reasonable dispute that, absent judicial intervention, Governor Newsom intends to continue indefinitely a massive and baseless suspension of the constitutional rights of Father Burfitt and nearly 40 million other residents of the state of California.

“He 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 unhindered. California’s residents are apparently expected to live their lives behind makeshift `face coverings’ while maintaining an arbitrary distance of six feet from everyone they encounter outside their homes. And to complete Newsom’s despotic mandates, anyone who declines to obey faces criminal and civil penalties. This is unconstitutional and a blatant violation of the rights guaranteed by California’s constitution.”

— City News Service

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