Parishioners hold their arms in the air and sing along as the worship team plays praise songs at the start of Easter services at Resonate church in Fremont on April 4, 2021. The church was permitted to begin hosting in-person services at 25% capacity in February but for many in the congregation, Easter marked their return to church after a year away. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

(CALMATTERS) – California churches are coming out of the pandemic smelling like roses.

The state agreed this week to two settlements that block it from imposing new coronavirus restrictions on houses of worship tougher than those for similar secular activities, CalMatters’ Ben Christopher and I report. It’s the latest legal blow churches have dealt Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration amid the pandemic: The U.S. Supreme Court in February knocked down California’s ban on indoor worship and in April paused its ban on at-home religious gatherings. The rulings from the nation’s highest court prompted California to allow houses of worship to reopen indoors at full capacity in April — something other businesses won’t be able to do for another two weeks.

  • Paul Jonna, a lawyer with the Thomas More Society, which represented the plaintiffs in the two cases: The settlements “memorialize what the Supreme Court has already articulated. … If it’s okay for Costco, it’s okay for churches. That’s the standard.”

In the settlements, the state also agreed to pay the two plaintiffs’ legal bills: $1.6 million for South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and $550,000 for Father Trevor Burfitt, a Catholic priest with congregations across Southern California. Last month, Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena secured a $1.35 million settlement under similar conditions.

The California Department of Justice, which entered into the settlements, did not respond to a request for comment.

That brings the tab for California’s losing streak against churches to at least $3.5 million — as compared to $6 million lawmakers set aside Tuesday in a budget deal for “legal challenges to the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response.”

California’s pandemic restrictions have been challenged in court at least 83 times, according to a CalMatters database. Although state and federal judges have generally upheld Newsom’s emergency powers, lawsuits over religious freedom have been the notable exception — largely due to a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court strengthened by then-President Donald Trump’s appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett.