The Department of Justice warned California Gov. Gavin Newsom that he was at risk of discriminating against religious groups with his state’s reopening strategy.
DOJ assistant attorney general Eric Dreiband sent a letter to Newsom on Tuesday saying that California has treated religious groups unfairly during its coronavirus lockdown, and that the state’s reopening strategy threatens to make that discrimination worse, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Dreiband said that Newsom’s stay-at-home order exempted some businesses and industries “regardless of whether the product they are selling and shipping are life-preserving products or not,” but the order bans church services and other religious gatherings. In Newsom’s reopening plans, restaraunts, shopping malls, and offices are allowed to open in phase 2, but houses of worship are not allowed to open until phase 3.
“This facially discriminates against religious exercise,” Dreiband wrote. “California has not shown why interactions in offices and studios of the entertainment industry, and in-person operations to facilitate nonessential ecommerce, are included on the list as being allowed with social distancing where telework is not practical, while gatherings with social distancing for purposes of religious worship are forbidden, regardless of whether remote worship is practical or not.”
The letter pointed out that many houses of worship across the country are implementing their own social distancing procedures, such as holding drive-through services.
“Religious communities have rallied to protect their communities from the spread of this disease by making services available online, in parking lots, or outdoors, by indoor services with a majority of pews empty, and in numerous other creative ways that otherwise comply with social distancing and sanitation guidelines,” Dreiband continued.
“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” Dreiband said. “The Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in stage 2 of the reopening plan.”
Newsom said on Monday that the state would begin lifting its ban on religious gatherings after certain benchmarks in controlling the spread of the virus, testing, and available hospital capacity are met, according to Politico.
“I want to just express my deep admiration to the faith community and the need and desire to know when their congregants can once again start coming back to the pews, coming back together,” Newsom said.
On Tuesday, two GOP lawmakers introduced a bill to the state legislature that would strip the governor of some of his emergency powers, according to The Associated Press. Assemblyman Kevin Kiley said that Newsom was using his office’s emergency powers to “remake all of California law indefinitely.”
San Francisco attorney Harmeet Dhillon is handling several lawsuits filed against Newsom over his executive orders’ impact on religious services. Dhillon is representing plaintiffs in at least 10 lawsuits against the state over the governor’s shutdown order on canceled weddings, closed businesses, and restrictions on religious activity.
“Literally, this country was founded on the concept that the king cannot tell the peasants how they may worship,” Dhillon told Politico. “Gov. Newsom may not tell people of faith that they can only worship in their homes.”
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