DOJ cites First Amendment in California house of worship closures
There is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sent Governor Gavin Newsom a three-page letter warning that that state’s house of worship closures are discriminatory and should receive equal treatment under the First Amendment.
The letter from Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband specifically noted that while businesses and film studios are allowed to currently operate in California, houses of worship remain closed. Dreiband specifically cited this as an ‘unequal treatment of faith communities’.
“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” noted Dreiband in the letter. “California has not shown why interactions in offices and studios of the entertainment industry, and in-person operations to facilitate nonessential e-commerce, 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.”
The letter further states that houses of worship, under equal treatment, should have reopened along with restaurants and other businesses during Phase 2 of reopening while also employing social distancing and public health measures such as facemasks.
DOJ’s letter to CA Gov. Newsom on civil rights and the covid-19 pandemic. “We believe that the Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the Reopening Plan.”
4:57 PM - May 19, 2020
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A growing number of churches in California have set a May 31st reopening date in defiance to California’s Phase system. To date, over 1,200 clergy members have signed on to reopen before the end of the month. The openings would happen several weeks before the official state reopening date of Phase 3, which includes places of worship. Governor Newsom said that Phase 3 would begin as early as June,
“Every church, every synagogue, every mosque, every temple, every type of place of worship wants to reopen,” explained Pastor Deborah Richardson, who plans to open up her church on May 31st. “And we’ll do it in safe ways. Some churches are looking into renting drive-ins to host services for social distancing for example. But the norm will have mandatory masks and families sitting six feet apart.”
“That will lead to some standing room only ‘seating’, and some of us have been talking about offering up another service time to accommodate everyone, but it’s that important. That’s why we’re all looking to start early.”
“That [DOJ] letter just confirms what we’ve been saying this entire time. I wish it didn’t have to come to a head like this and have the federal government forced to step in. We should have been working together with the state since Easter for proper guidelines, like what safe distances are, what maximum capacities should be, and other guidelines to open up earlier. We know there is still a pandemic going on and we want to be safe, but this will also help people spiritually and give some much needed morale.”
“I stress again we need to do this safely, but reopening is important. That [DOJ] letter only shows we were in the right.”
While Governor Newsom’s office has not offered comment beyond disclosing that they had received the letter, it is expected that the state will respond with a decision based on public safety concern and current coronavirus figures to back up their decision.
Evan V. Symon is the Senior Editor for the California Globe. Prior to the Globe, he reported for the Pasadena Independent, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and was head of the Personal Experiences section at Cracked. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.