Local lawyer fighting for churches’ right to worship in a pandemic

Noel Meza was sworn-in by Judge William Gallo.

Rancho Santa Fe’s Noel Meza was sworn in as a new lawyer during the pandemic and has gotten to work right away with religious liberty cases. Currently, his law firms LiMandri & Jonna and the Thomas More Society are fighting to protect places of worship from public health orders Meza and the churches believe to be unconstitutional.

The firms are representing many churches pro bono including: South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, Grace Community Church of the Valley (Los Angeles), Embrace Church (Oxnard), Shepherd Church (Los Angeles) and the Society of Saint Pius X which has churches in four Southern Californian counties, including St. John Bosco Mission inside the Four Points Sheraton in San Diego.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, state and local government officials have continuously discriminated against churches in California. They have issued public health orders that violate the fundamental, constitutional right to worship,” Meza said. “They have done all of this while leaving open bars, malls, restaurants and even strip clubs.”

Meza, 30, was raised in Rancho Santa Fe and attended Nativity School, Cathedral Catholic High School and then Torrey Pines High School, graduating in 2009.

He got his bachelor’s degree from UCLA and went to work for his family’s real estate investment company before going to law school at University of San Diego School of Law. He graduated in December 2019 and passed the February 2020 bar exam, which had the lowest pass rate in history of 26%.

“I credit St. Joseph of Cupertino, the patron saint of exams,” Meza said.

During law school he interned for the Honorable William V. Gallo of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the California Department of Justice, and clerked at LiMandri & Jonna, a Rancho Santa Fe firm.

He was sworn in by Judge Gallo and officially joined LiMandri & Jonna as an associate attorney this spring. He also serves as an associate special counsel for the Thomas More Society, a national nonprofit public interest law firm that handles many religious liberty cases.

“I feel very privileged, very blessed and thankful,” Meza said of the opportunity to start a new career in the midst of a pandemic. “The world didn’t stop. Lawyers didn’t get a break.”

In the religious liberty cases his firms are working on, they are opposing COVID-19 restrictions that they say fail to treat churches as favorably as businesses.: “Coming together to worship responsibly isn’t any more dangerous than waiting in line at Costco or Walmart,” Meza said.

Per the current stay-at-home order, churches can only be open for outdoor worship.

“We are at a tipping point in our fight against the virus and we need to take decisive action now to prevent California’s hospital system from being overwhelmed in the coming weeks,” said Governor Newsom in issuing the order on Dec. 3.

Earlier in the year churches were closed allowing online services only and in the spring, churches were allowed to open with 25% capacity until the order changed again in November moving services back outside.

Masking and physical distancing must be followed for outdoor services. Per the guidance, indoor singing and chanting activities are still prohibited as they negate the risk reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing. Singing is allowed during outdoor services, as long as all the precautions are followed such as facial coverings and social distancing.

The counties involved in the different cases all have different approaches with the churches—in Los Angeles the county has fined Shepherd Church and filed multiple citations against Grace Community Church, stating that it has repeatedly violated public health and court orders needed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Ventura County has sent Embrace Church a cease and desist order.

Meza said most of the churches are following the rules that are in place.

In the case of the Reverend Trevor Burfitt of the Society of Saint Pius X, Meza said “We had a huge win.” On Dec. 10, the Superior Court of California, Kern County issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Governor Gavin Newsom, the state and health officials from enforcing COVID-19 restrictions that fail to treat houses of worship equal to the favored class of entities.

The defendants argued that permitted secular activities in big-box stores and grocery stores differed from religious services in terms of crowd size, proximity and length of stay but the judge was not convinced.

Per Judge Gregory Pulskamp’s ruling, the free exercise of religion clause in the California Constitution prohibits defendants from treating religious activities worse than comparable secular activities.

“Members of this court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the judge ruled. “The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. Before allowing this to occur, we have a duty to conduct a serious examination of the need for such a drastic measure.”

Meza said they are waiting to see what happens with Grace Community Church and South Bay United cases following a Supreme Court decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo that struck down New York’s public health orders that limited attendance at churches and synagogues.

With his involvement in the cases, Meza said he has been inspired to represent people who are so devoted to their faith and it has made him think more about his own religious journey.

Meza said about 20% of his work is related to constitutional law and civil rights—his other practice focuses on business and real estate litigation, construction defect litigation, personal injury/medical malpractice and securities and financial institution migration.

“There’s justice in that too,” Meza said. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in being able to achieve justice and help people that are being taken advantage of and have their rights protected.”

He also volunteers for the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program to provide pro bono legal representation to victims of domestic violence and serves as a mentor for law students through the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association, an organization that seeks to advance the cause of equality and empowerment for Latino attorneys and the Latino community. This year, a State Bar report on the diversity of California’s legal profession revealed that while Latinos represent 36% of the state’s adult population, they account for only 7% of all of California’s licensed active attorneys.

Through his mentorship of young students, Meza is passionate about building Latino representation and giving back to his community.