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DOJ Warns CA Gov. Newsom: Stop Discriminating Against Religious Gatherings

By  Hank BerrienDailyWire.com
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Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice fired off a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom warning him that his executive orders are being unfair to religious gatherings, saying the DOJ is concerned about civil rights violations.

The letter started by stating, “We are writing to you to raise several civil rights concerns with the treatment of places of worship in Executive Orders N-33-20 and N-60-20 and documents relating to the California Reopening Plan.”

The letter referenced Attorney General William P. Barr’s recent remarks in which he noted, “even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers. Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.”

The DOJ wrote, “Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Laws that do not treat religious activities equally with comparable nonreligious activities are subject to heightened scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment … Laws that are not both neutral toward religion and generally applicable are invalid unless the government can prove that they further a compelling interest and are pursued through the least restrictive means possible. Religious gatherings may not be singled out for unequal treatment compared to other nonreligious gatherings that have the same effect on the government’s public health interest, absent the most compelling reasons.”

The letter mentioned Newsom’s Executive Order N-33-20, which gave the Public Health Officer the power to decide wha t were authorized necessary activities, then added, “The Public Health Officer’s April 28 ‘essential workforce’ list does not appear to treat religious activities and comparable nonreligious activities the same. The list includes ‘faith-based services’ but only if ‘provided through streaming or other technologies.’ In-person religious services are thus apparently prohibited even if they adhere to social distancing standards.”

After listing nonreligious workers who are not so restricted by the Executive Order, the letter continued, “This facially discriminates against religious exercise. 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.”

Referencing California’s Reopening Plan, the letter noted, “Places of worship are not permitted to hold religious worship services until Stage 3. However, in Stage 2, schools, restaurants, factories, offices, shopping malls, swap meets, and others are permitted to operate with social distancing. And as noted, ecommerce and entertainment industry activities are already permitted with social distancing. This constitutes precisely the kind of differential treatment the Supreme Court identified in the Lukumidecision in which the government is not willing to impose on certain activities the same restrictions it is willing to impose on constitutionally protected religious worship.”

The letter concluded, “Religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans. This is true now more than ever. 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. We believe, for the reasons outlined above, that the Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the Reopening Plan.”

The letter was signed by Eric S. Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General Civil Rights Division; McGregor W. Scott, United States Attorney Eastern District of California; Nicola T. Hanna, United States Attorney Central District of California; David L. Anderson, United States Attorney Northern District of California, and Robert S. Brewer, United States Attorney Southern District of California.

Politico reported that attorney Harmeet Dhillon, who has led the legal challenges to California’s ban on church services, said, “Literally, this country was founded on the concept that the king cannot tell the peasants how they may worship. Gov. Newsom may not tell people of faith that they can only worship in their homes.”

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