(Bethany Blankley, The Center Square) The state of California continues to settle with churches over restrictions it imposed on houses of worship during the year-long shutdown ordered by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
In the latest round of settlements with three churches, the state and two counties are paying a total of $1.3 million in attorney’s fees.
The state and county of Los Angeles settled with Los Angeles-based Grace Community Church and its pastor, John MacArthur, agreeing to pay its attorneys from Thomas More Society $800,000 in fees and costs.
The state and San Joaquin County settled with Cross Culture Christian Center (CCCC) of Lodi and its pastor, Jon Duncan, and Cornerstone Church of Fresno, and its pastor, Jim Franklin, agreeing to pay its attorneys from Advocates for Faith & Freedom $500,000.
The settlements came months after state and federal courts in California issued permanent injunctions against the state, prohibiting it and any and all state or local agencies from imposing restrictions on houses of worship that were not applied to secular entities.
In Grace Community’s case, the state and Los Angeles County are paying $400,000 each to Thomas More Society, totaling $800,000.
In the cases of CCCC and Cornerstone, the state is paying $400,000 and San Joaquin County is paying $100,000 to Advocates for Faith & Freedom.
The county had targeted CCCC, and its landlord, Bethel Open Bible Church’s (BOBC), Advocates for Faith & Freedom said, “with an outrageously oppressive order to shut down the entire church property. BOBC used the San Joaquin County’s unlawful order as an excuse to illegally cancel CCCC’s lease and lock the church out of the building.”
“After a long 16-month hard fought legal battle, the State and San Joaquin County have finally been held accountable for abusing their authority under the guise of public health,” Advocates attorney Nada Higuera said in a statement. “This is a monumental victory not just for the churches in this case, but for all places of worship throughout California.”
The settlement was reached during the churches’ Ninth Circuit appeal.
The state of California, Los Angeles County, and city of Los Angeles “unconstitutionally used COVID-19 as a pretext to attempt to force churches to close indefinitely,” Thomas More Society said. The city had issued a cease-and-desist order, threatening Grace Community and MacArthur with daily fines of $1,000 or arrest after they chose to not close their doors in response to Newsom’s order issued in March. In August 2020, Grace sued the state and the county.
The county also sought to have MacArthur held in contempt of court and withdrew the church’s 45-year-old parking lot lease. The cancellation of the lease was rescinded as part of the settlement.
Thomas More Society attorney Jenna Ellis said of Grace Community’s settlement, “The church is essential. Religious liberty and the Constitution won today against the overbroad, arbitrary, indeterminate, and clearly unconstitutional mandates from Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles County.”
The settlements follow three previous settlements California agreed to earlier this year with three other Christian ministries.
In May, the state agreed to pay $1.35 million in attorney fees and costs in a settlement with Harvest Rock Church, represented by Liberty Counsel. In June, the state agreed to pay $2.15 million in attorney fees and costs to Thomas More Society, who sued on behalf of South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Father Trevor Burfitt and his ministries in two separate cases.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court and California Superior Court had ruled against Newsom months earlier, houses of worship still fought restrictions in the courts.
By April 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that its ruling was “the fifth time the Court has summarily rejected the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of California’s COVID restrictions on religious exercise,” because neither the Ninth Circuit nor Newsom had complied with its orders.
Several Calvary Chapel cases are still pending in different counties in northern and southern California…Original Source…