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.


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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 3,685,916 confirmed cases (+0.01% from previous day) and 62,044 deaths (+0.04% from previous day), according to a CalMatters tracker.

California has administered 37,674,057 vaccine doses, and 51.4% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. We’re also tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county and lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions.


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1. Permanent pandemic changes?

Restaurant patrons sit in a parklet along Valencia Street in San Francisco on July 25, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Hard-hit restaurants and bars may not exactly come out of the pandemic smelling like roses — but many will likely be able to continue serving alcohol to-go and expanding outdoor dining, CalMatters’ Miranda Green reports. State lawmakers are currently considering two bills that would permanently allow restaurants to sell to-go alcoholic beverages and another that would permanently allow cities to restrict traffic, creating “slow streets” that could encourage more outdoor dining. Several large cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco, have already expanded or are considering expanding their outdoor dining programs.

But allowing restaurants to keep selling to-go alcoholic drinks could be controversial. Alcohol Justice, an industry watchdog group, argues such a policy could threaten public health and safety by increasing drunk driving.

2. Big-box gender neutrality?

Toys for girls and boys for sale at a street market. Image via iStock

From CalMatters politics reporter Sameea Kamal: Large retail stores that don’t display children’s toys and other products in gender-neutral sections could face fines of up to $500 under a bill passed this week by the state Assembly. Although the Senate plans to exempt clothing from the requirement, if the measure passes and is signed by Newsom, California could fine noncompliant retailers with 500 or more employees starting Jan. 1, 2024. Some stores, including Target and Walmart, have already done away with gender-based signs — but the practice remains controversial, with the California Family Council referring to the bill as one of several that threatens “parental rights, freedom of speech and religion.”

The bill is among hundreds lawmakers are racing through ahead of a Friday deadline for proposals to pass out of the house where they were introduced. It’s also among a group of bills likely to serve as a flashpoint in California’s ongoing culture wars, including one passed by the Senate that would declare racism a public health crisis and establish a California Chief Equity Officer.

3. How would you spend $100 billion?

Illustration by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters; iStock

What would you do with California’s $100 billion surplus? Newsom and the Legislature have already announced their ideas — so now it’s time for you to unveil yours. Here’s where it gets fun: CalMatters web developer John D’Agostino created an interactive tool that allows you to adjust California’s tax and spending priorities so you can create the state of your dreams. Want to slash California’s personal income tax? Go right ahead — but say goodbye to $123 billion that you could have used for health insurance, high-speed rail, water resilience or something else. Or get rid of high-speed rail altogether! The choice is yours. Check out John’s fun “spend the surplus” game.


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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: A decades-long debate over the fate of Oakland’s Interstate 980 freeway may be nearing an end as politicians call for its demolition.

Unfetter urban housing projects: Lawmakers must pass a bill to free small developments from zoning and environmental restrictions, argues Maureen Sadonaen of Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco.


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Other things worth your time

After a COVID downturn, California economy ready to rebound. // Los Angeles Times

A fight is breaking out over how to spend money from San Francisco’s real estate tax. // San Francisco Chronicle

California wasted 31,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses. // Sacramento Bee

A long-shelved film about California’s 2003 governor recall is ready for its close-up. // Los Angeles Times

‘If this thing qualifies, I’m toast’: An oral history of the Gray Davis recall in California. // The Hill

Lead-tainted water adds more delays for California train project. // Sacramento Bee

Mayor Pro Tem Tito Ortiz resigns from Huntington Beach council after a rocky 6-month tenure. // Orange County Register

California wants to buy nonlethal bear traps and pay ranchers when wolves kill their cows. // Sacramento Bee

Lyme-carrying ticks thriving on California coast, study finds. // San Francisco Chronicle

Shocking study finds 10% of world’s giant sequoias killed by California’s Castle Fire. // MSN

The California condor is beginning to soar again. // Smithsonian Magazine


See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven writes the daily WhatMatters newsletter for CalMatters. Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco Business...