Three days after President Trump ramped up pressure on governors to reopen churches, and with over 1,200 California churches saying they will not comply with a prolonged lockdown, Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday that churches in the state would be allowed to reopen — but only at 25 percent capacity or a maximum of 100 people per service.
In response, Orange County Supervisors, condemning Newsom’s new guidelines as overly restrictive, voted unanimously on Tuesday that churches are “essential,” while the Orange County Sheriff made clear that his deputies will not be enforcing some social distancing rules, including the church restrictions.
“Counties can now begin re-opening houses of worship and in-store shopping for retail,” Newsom tweeted Monday along with new guidance on the next phase of reopening. As The Daily Wire reported, under Newsom’s new guidelines, places of worship will only be allowed to reach 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is the lowest, and the limits will remain in place “for the first 21-days of a county public health department’s approval of religious services and cultural ceremonies activities at places of worship.”
But Orange County officials say Newsom’s guidelines for churches go too far. As reported by Voice of OC, Orange County Supervisors agreed with the Trump administration on Tuesday that churches are “essential” in a unanimous resolution that followed “pressure from a series of religious leaders and residents over the past few weeks during the coronavirus pandemic.”
“These guidelines allow houses of worship to open with many restrictions,” said Chairwoman Michelle Steel at the meeting Tuesday. “They even discourage singing and gathering for holidays.” Supervisor Lisa Bartlett noted that many of the houses of worship in the area are quite large; restricting services to 100 people would require an unmanageable number of services to minister to all of their members.
Supervisor Don Wagner invoked constitutional rights. “Can you imagine having told George Washington or John Adams or Patrick Henry or Ben Franklin that your First Amendment right to worship and your First Amendment right to protest can be limited by the government if we think there’s maybe just too many of you?” Wagner asked, Voice of OC reports. “You would’ve taken your life in your hands making that claim to George Washington.”
The resolution declaring churches essential, officials stressed, does not supersede Newsom’s order. However, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes also announced on Tuesday that he and his deputies would not be enforcing the state’s restrictions on churches or the county’s mask mandate.
“My department is being put in the middle of some strife that occurs throughout the community — in positions that are not consistent with the First Amendment,” said Barnes, adding: “We are not the mask police nor do I intend to be the mask police.”
Prior to his announcement Monday, Newsom had said churches would not be able to reopen until the third phase of his four-phase plan.
But last week, Trump announced that he was instructing the CDC to declare churches “essential.” “At my direction, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is issuing guidance for communities of faith,” Trump said in a press conference Friday. “I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services.”
“These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united. The people are demanding to go to church and synagogue, go to their mosque,” Trump said. “The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now, or this weekend.”
Meanwhile, religious leaders representing over 1,200 churches in the state informed Newsom in an open letter that they would begin to hold church services starting on May 31, regardless of what the governor proscribed.
“The clergy of this state are convinced that they must reopen their ministries to fully serve the needs of their communities,” the letter reads. “The spiritual services of ministries are absolutely essential to the health and welfare of the people of California. For example, a study published on May 6, 2020, in JAMA Psychiatry found ‘that religious service attendance is associated with a lower risk of death from despair among registered nurses and health care professionals. These results may be important in understanding trends in deaths from despair in the general population.’ The addiction and counseling services conducted in churches need to resume. In sum, a great crisis has arisen from the secondary effects of the COVID-19 shutdown. The societal effects are not temporary and will last a lifetime in many individuals. In times of crisis, the clergy have a calling and responsibility to lead and care for their congregants and community.”
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