Earlier this week, the state of California agreed to a deal with the South Bay United Pentecostal Church of Chula Vista and Bakersfield-area priest to pay $2.1 million in legal fees to the Thomas More Society law firm following several indoor worship lawsuits in which California had lost.
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Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 lockdowns included indoor church and worship bans throughout both California and the United States. This led numerous churches to challenge these lockdowns based on First Amendment freedom of worship arguments, and in the case of South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, to challenge it based on retailers receiving lesser restrictions on churches, such as some retailers receiving 50% capacity reductions, while houses of worship were tied to only allowing in 25% capacity.
Many of the cases reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where they ruled that while singing and chanting could be barred under COVID-19 restrictions, indoor services could not be denied.
“California’s determination that the maximum number of adherents who can safely worship in the most cavernous cathedral is zero—appears to reflect not expertise or discretion, but instead insufficient appreciation or consideration of the interests at stake,” noted Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion for South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom in February.
Earlier legal challenges in the Supreme Court brought by Harvest Rock Church of Pasadena and other churches had, in addition to being ruled in favor of, also ordered Governor Gavin Newsom to respond to emergency petitions around the state lockdown, including one personally overseen by Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.
A final Supreme Court victory in April, in which California was ordered to stop the ban on at-home religious meetings, was the final straw, with capacity limits finally being lifted.
“If they’re gonna restrict Costco to 50%, then they can do the same thing to churches,” explained lawyer Paul Jonna said on Tuesday. “But what they were doing before, as you may remember, is they were keeping those places open and they were shutting down churches — at least in California — completely.”
$2.1 million in legal fees
With most church-based lawsuits over COVID-19 restrictions in California over, the lingering question of how much California owes the churches in legal fees as the losing party has stuck around, as the Chula Vista-based church had cases go all the way to the Supreme Court.
“Cases that get appealed over and over again really rack up the legal fees and billable hours,” explained Los Angeles lawyer James Bruno, who has had cases go before the Supreme Court over the last several decades, to the Globe on Thursday. “It’s actually a common legal maneuver for larger firms or entities to delay the case as much as possible to run up legal fees and costs on the other side in the hope that they drop the case. So, by the time it gets to Appeals or the Supreme Court, you can see astronomical figures. Especially if it’s a team of lawyers.
“And it doesn’t even have to go through several rounds of appeals. Slow-burning trials can rack up fees too. Remember O.J. Simpson’s dream team of lawyers? That cost him around $5 million in 1995. So it’s not a surprise that California is shelling out millions today after losing.”
A federal judge approved the deal on Tuesday that the lawyers for the Thomas More Society, a law firm that represented South Bay United Pentecostal Church and Father Trevor Burfitt of Bakerfield in two respective cases, would get $2.1 million in legal fees from California – $1.6 million from the South Bay case and $550,000 from Burfitt’s case.
Other court decisions lost by California and California government entities are also expected to result in legal fee deals in the near future.
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