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California to pay $2M church legal fees over virus closures

The state of California has agreed not to impose greater coronavirus restrictions on church gatherings than it does on retail establishments in a pair of settlements that provide more than $2 million in fees to lawyers who challenged the rules as a violation of religious freedom.

A deal approved Tuesday by a federal judge comes after lawyers for a San Diego-area Pentecostal church took their challenge against the state to the U.S. Supreme Court three times and won. 

The settlement includes a permanent injunction in line with Supreme Court rulings that found restrictions on houses of worship cannot exceed those on retail businesses, attorney Paul Jonna said.

“If they’re gonna restrict Costco to 50%, then they can do the same thing to churches,” Jonna said. “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.”

The settlement has little practical impact after a Supreme Court ruling led the state in April to lift limits on indoor worship. As the state’s case rate of COVID-19 has plummeted since a deadly winter surge and vaccination rates rise, Gov. Gavin Newsom is poised to lift all restrictions on June 15.